From being an ex-slave to becoming one of the richest African-Americans in the South—that’s the fantastic story of an Athens, Clarke County, Georgia resident, Monroe Bowers Morton. And he is a strong motivating figure for young people even today.

   On Martin Luther King Day 2012, a group of white and African American youths visited the Morton family lot at Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery to learn about his family and to pick up trash as their work project. Their work was supervised by the Rev. Solomon Smothers and his wife Lora, both of whom are taking a leading role in teaching young students about the cemetery and African Americans buried there.

   Morton’s success as a leading businessman and real estate owner was documented by Athens and Atlanta newspapers, as well as by census statistics on real and personal worth and deed records. His two-story, large home on Prince Avenue at South Milledge Avenue in Athens was considered the best African-American home in town.  Several newspaper articles recognized Morton as one of the wealthiest black men in the South.

   “Mr. Morton is a self-made man, and has won his way to the front in business, politics, society by sheer force of character, distinct individuality, rare precocity and strict application to business,” the Atlanta Independent newspaper said in a long story about him on Jan. 30, 1904. 

   The  Athens general public knows Morton best as the builder of the four-story Morton Theatre, frequented by leading African-American entertainers and restored as one of the few remaining early 20th Century black theaters. Early in the 20th Century, his Morton Theatre was referred to as “the colored opera house” or Morton’s Opera House. 

   It was much more than a typical vaudeville theater. The Morton was the venue of many high-class concerts, commencements, etc. in the African-American (and white) community. Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Louis Armstrong and Cab Calloway were among leading black entertainers playing there. Monroe Morton built the theatre, not only to make money, but to give a quality setting for African-American entertainment.  Whites also frequently came to see well known black entertainers. Today it’s a beautifully restored theater, supported strongly by both black and white communities.

   Morton, known more commonly as “Pink” Morton, became a nationally known Republican Party leader. He served on the committee telling William McKinley he had been chosen the Republican Party’s candidate for President in 1896. Later, after McKinley’s win over William Jennings Bryan for the presidency, he appointed Morton the second black postmaster of Athens. Morton served from July 27, 1897, to Feb. 6, 1902, according to U. S. Post Office records.  

   Morton named one of his daughters Ida  Saxton Mckinley for President McKinley’s wife, Ida Saxton McKinley.

   Madison Davis, another former slave and politician, was Athens’ first black postmaster. He served from 1882 until 1886. Both Davis and Morton were opposed ferociously by many whites in Athens, but local residents could do little to stop Republican presidents from appointing them postmasters and receiving congressional confirmation.

   Morton was nicknamed “Pink” because of his light complexion.  A long-time Athens court bailiff, William Pope, told me in 2007: “Morton wasn’t black and he wasn’t white, so they called him ‘Pink.’”

   President McKinley was assassinated in office, dying on Sept. 14, 1901. He was succeeded by Vice President Theodore Roosevelt.  As the 19th Century ended, few black office holders remained in the South. The Epoch of Jim Crow set in, with more segregation and stringent laws limiting African-Americans’ civil rights.

   Morton was born sometime between 1853 and1857.  His tombstone in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery, Athens, indicates he was born in 1856. Census records, however, give other dates. He was a slave on a plantation north of Athens, according to his obituary in an Athens paper.  His master may have been John Phinizy, a wealthy planter living in the Buck Branch Militia District in northern Clarke County.  Morton’s obituary in the Chicago Defender said Morton was a slave on the “Phinizy Plantation,” north of Athens, not giving a more precise location.  The 1860  federal census slave schedule indicates there was a slave who could have been of an appropriate age to be Morton on the John Phinizy plantation. 

   Two mulatto males, one 6 years of age and the other 3 years old in 1860, could have been Morton, who was a mulatto. Phinizy’s slaves included a 38-year-old female and a 27-year-old female. The 38-year-old was described as “black,” while the 27-year-old was listed as a “mulatto.” As you probably know, birthdates for slaves were frequently imprecise, as white masters frequently didn’t attach much importance to an exact date.

   It was common knowledge in Athens that Monroe B. Morton had a white father. Several sources say his father was James B. White, who would become the president of the First National Bank of Athens. Researcher Thomas Riis, who documented the development of the Morton Theatre and the Morton family, said Maud Muller Morton, one of Monroe Morton’s daughters, told him that Morton’s father was James B. White. But she also said, according to a member of the family, that Morton’s father was a Billy Morton. Professor Riis said Morton’s mother was named Elizabeth Morgan, a slave. White would have been quite young, about 13-17 around the time of Morton’s birth.

   Pink Morton, even as a child, showed hustle and business ability. At age 6 he was working at an Athens hotel during the Civil War. His mother, commonly called Lizzie, was the head of his family according to the 1870 census. Pink Morton was later to erect a memorial stone to her in the Morton family plot in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery. Nothing was said about his father. The “in Memory” stone indicates she died in the 1880’s, although the last digit is not readable. The marker notes that she was about 50 years old.

   In 1890 Pink Morton showed assets of $30,000 on the tax rolls for Clarke County. This was a large valuation in 1890.  Charles Morton, a grandson of Pink Morton, told me that White gave financial support to Morton’s contracting business. It is obvious that he got help as a business entrepreneur.  He was widely respected by both black and white residents and exerted a moderating influence in several racially explosive situations. 

   His business life flourished. Clarke County deed books show he owned several dozen pieces of property in Athens, and he had a farm outside the city.

   Toward the end of the 19th Century Morton as a contractor built a federal building in Anniston, Alabama, a marble-front business building in downtown Athens and the Wilkes County Court House in Washington, Georgia. He would follow with the construction of the Morton Theatre, which opened in 1910. He actively managed the theatre for years. Eventually his son Charles Morton Sr. would follow him in running the theatre. Charles Morton Jr., as a young boy, played roles in skits at the theatre.

   Monroe Morton emphasized that his theatre showed only “clean” entertainments, keeping a high reputation.  His daughter, Maud, however told interviewer Conoly Hester in the 1980’s that she wasn’t allowed to go to the theater.

   His theater building also housed businesses, doctors’ and dentist offices for African American leaders, helping to establish its location at Hull and Washington Streets as the main building at “Hot Corner,” the leading black business and entertainment area in Athens. The Morton Theatre later showed movies, as interest generally lessened in vaudeville and live shows performed by black entertainers.  The theater after World War II fell vacant and was in danger of being condemned until interested citizens and the Athens government restored it as a rare example of a major black theatre.

   Stories abound about the theatre building.  Morton installed a gasoline pump so that cars of African Americans could be filled up. At that time many whites didn’t like to pump gas for black customers.  Conoly Hester, then a reporter for the Athens Observer, wrote a thorough article on “Hot Corner” and Pink Morton’s role in its development.  She interviewed Jacob Weaver, an African American who grew up in the area, who told her Morton performed another service: furnishing bootleg whisky from a large vat on top of the theatre roof. He said a pipe led down to a sink in Smith’s Café, on the street level. “White lightning” came out of one of the water faucets.

   Monroe Morton lived until Feb. 12, 1919, when he died in Athens. His death certificate indicates he died of cirrhosis of the liver and chronic myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. He was about 63 years old. His obituary in the Chicago Defender, a major national black newspaper, said he had suffered from a long illness.

   “Mr. Morton was prominent in fraternal circles and the owner of a theater he erected expressly for the purpose of keeping his people from being forced to sit in the dirty Jim Crow apartments provided for by white theaters,” the article said. It noted he was one of the wealthiest men in Georgia.

   Today, the Morton family lot in the Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery in East Athens is on the main avenue going from the front gate. It is fenced and kept clean. A white friend of Maud Morton, Mrs. Louise Silcox, kept the lot tidy for many years and hired someone to look after it later on.  This past MLK Day, a small group of excited students toured the cemetery and became familiar with some of the history of the illustrious Morton family. They were excited and awed by the spectacular career of an ex-slave, a major figure nationally as well as in Athens.

Ex-Slave Monroe Bowers Morton, Athens, GA, who became one of the richest blacks in the South. (Photo courtesy of Charles Morton
Cleaning up the Monroe Morton family plot in Gospel Pilgrim Cemetery on Martin Luther King Day, 2012, Athens, GA