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Morton, Ferdinand Q.(1881–1949) - Politician, lawyer, baseball commissioner, Heads Black Tammany, Chronology

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From World War I through the Great Depression, Harlem had among its first black politicians Ferdinand Q. Morton, who seemingly had absolute control over the political machine known as Black Tammany. Although he practiced law for a while, Morton was primarily interested in Democratic politics, as leader of the United Colored Democracy and perhaps more importantly as head of Black Tammany. For the Democratic mayors of New York, he became the sole spokesperson for black democracy and one of Harlem’s most powerful black political leaders in his time. When appointed to the New York Municipal Civil Service Commission, he became its first black member and held the power to increase the number of black employees in New York City.

Born on September 9, 1881, in Macon, Mississippi, Ferdinand Quinton Morton was the son of Edward James Morton and Mattie Shelton Morton, who were former slaves. Edward Morton moved his family from Mississippi to Washington, D.C., in 1890, when he became a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department. Young Ferdinand was educated in the Washington public schools before enrolling in Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire. After graduating in 1902, he enrolled at Harvard University, where he achieved well and participated in intercollegiate debate, which previously gave students credit toward graduation. During his senior year, the university changed its policy on allowing such credit and told Morton that he needed one-half course credit more to complete his degree, the amount that the debating experience would have provided. Rather than take a course to make up this work, he left school. Another interpretation of his departure is given by Francesco L. Nepa, Morton’s biographer in American National Biography . Nepa claims that Morton left Harvard in 1905 “probably because of monetary problems.” Whatever the case, Morton made a similar choice at Boston University Law School, which he entered in the fall of 1905 and after a year and a half of studies left without taking his degree. Nepa asserts again that financial problems contributed to this decision. Apparently Morton maintained his interest in law, though, for he worked as a law clerk for two years and in 1910 passed the New York State Bar without having a law degree.

Heads Black Tammany

Morton developed an interest in politics while studying for his law degree. In 1908, after he relocated to New York City, he worked in William Jennings Bryan’s Democratic campaign for president. He spoke publicly on Bryan’s behalf. After Bryan lost the election to Republican William Howard Taft, Morton continued his interest in the Democratic Party. At this time, Harlem had not opened up to blacks. In 1910, for example, there were no black policemen in the city. There were no blacks in state or municipal legislative branches either. Blacks in city employment, other than school teachers (who were not called political), were relegated to the Street Cleaning Department Morton joined the United Colored Democracy (UCD), which was formed to convince blacks in New York to switch from the Republican to the Democratic Party. New York was believed to be a promised land for many black migrants from the South. An unprecedented number of blacks lived in Harlem, where the community became active in politics. Their vote, however, was divided between two assembly districts, the Nineteenth and Twenty-first. Robert N. Wood especially liked Black Tammany and made the young and inexperienced Morton his right-hand man. The party also respected Wood. Thus, in 1915 the UCD, with its special black organization within the city’s Democratic Party, took Ferdinand Morton as its leader and the leader of Black Tammany.

Some worried that individual blacks could impede the progress of an entire group. Morton’s position as head of UCD meant that there was no struggle for leadership in the organization of Harlem’s Democratic ward. Morton used his authority to quiet local demands for black Democratic leaders in the Nineteenth and Twenty-first alderman districts (ADs). But as this change took place, some thought that Morton’s control of “Black Tammany” weakened. Claims were that Black Tammany consisted largely of men who were janitors and held small jobs supplemented by bribes on Election Day. There arose mixed reaction to Morton and his efforts. Gilbert Osofsky wrote in Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto that dissident black Democrats found Morton “haughty”, “secretive”, and “exclusive”, a man who acted like an “overlord.” He was criticized for being “utterly without the social qualities which make a leader easily accessible to his constituents and responsive to their needs.” He was said to be “arrogant”, “cynical”, and “vindictive.” On the other hand, the NAACP’s Crisis magazine for July 1925 endorsed Morton, calling him “a strong, skillful, courageous man, cynical surely, but honest and sound.” The magazine said that he deserved respect. Further, he was described as “avowedly a party politician” who argued that “a determined and resourceful Negro inside the Northern Democratic Party could do more to stop Southern domination than all the Negroes herded as Republicans.” Morton believed that the future of black America would be worked out in the North rather than the South and West. It was, therefore, important for blacks to have civic and political equality. In his view, blacks in urban and industrial centers of the North should align themselves with the dominant political party.



Born in Macon, Mississippi on September 9


Enrolls at Harvard College


Enrolls in Boston University Law School


Passes the New York Bar; enters law practice


Heads United Colored Democracy; begins tenure as head of “Black Tammany Hall”; appointed assistant district attorney for New York County’s Indictment Bureau


Becomes first black member of the New York Municipal Civil Service Commission


Leaves his post with the United Colored Democracy


Becomes commissioner of baseball for the Negro National League


Elected president of the Civil Service Commission


Dies in Washington, D.C. on November 8

Morton practiced law in New York for six years. He was appointed assistant district attorney for New York County in 1916. He continued in public office and in 1921 headed the office’s Indictment Bureau. Charles F. Murphy, who headed mainstream Tammany Hall, admired Morton’s speaking and leadership abilities and in 1915 sought Morton’s support as Harlem’s black Democratic leader. He knew that Morton headed Black Tammany, was the city’s most recognized Democrat, and had “almost dictatorial control of Negro patronage,” wrote Osofsky in Harlem: The Making of a Negro Ghetto . Morton worked with Harlem’s white Democratic bosses through the 1930s. Morton’s assistance made him recognized as the most powerful black Democrat in the city. Until 1932, blacks in Harlem had given unwavering support to Republican presidential candidates, but after World War II they were more politically independent where local politics was concern. They trusted Democratic mayoral candidate John F. Hylan, whom they believed was an honest leader. When elected mayor in 1921, Hylan responded to Morton’s support during the election and on January 1, 1922, appointed him chair of the Municipal Civil Service Commission, a lucrative and important post. With this appointment Morton became the first black to head any department in the city.

Hylan went out of office, succeeded by James J. Walker, who reappointed Morton to the cabinet-rank post. Morton joined the Republican alderman, the NAACP, and the North Harlem Medical Society in persuading Walker to appoint five black physicians to racially segregated Harlem Hospital’s regular staff, making them the first blacks in such a position. Walker also saw that a training school for black nurses was established there. In 1930, Walker made sweeping changes, reorganized the hospital, and saw that it was open without restrictions to black doctors. By 1932, over seventy black interns and physicians worked at the hospital.

The segregated UCD was called into question and in the 1920s was said to have outlived its usefulness. The Democratic mayors used Morton “as a vehicle of city patronage,” wrote Osofsky, and blacks who were opposed to what was going on politically could do no more than hope for relief. Those who held local jobs also controlled the party and were fired if they complained too loudly or defiantly. For example, a clerk in Harlem’s municipal court, a superintendent in the state employment office in Harlem, and a deputy sheriff in New York County criticized Morton’s leadership and refused to give 10 percent of their salaries to UCD, only to be summarily dismissed due to incompetence. Morton’s dictatorship ruled until 1933, when Republican Fiorello H. LaGuardia was elected mayor. A liberal politician, LaGuardia eliminated Morton’s patronage, and the UCD functioned no longer. LaGuardia gave Morton an ultimatum: break with the Democratic Party or lose his appointment on the Civil Service Commission. Morton saved himself, gave up the party, left Tammany, and joined the American Labor Party, the party of choice of the mayor. For financial reasons as well, Morton would keep his post and the $10,000 per year that he made as one of the city’s highest-paid blacks at the time. After that, Harlem Democrats were no longer under his control; they took over local district organization and removed the old white bosses from the Nineteenth AD in 1935 and the Twenty-first AD in 1939.

Morton left the political arena in 1935 and became baseball commissioner for the Negro National League that Andrew “Rube” Foster, the “Father of Black Baseball,” founded in 1920. He held that post for four years. His tenure covered the final two years of the Negro National League as the only black league and the first two years of the rival Negro American League. It is said that his role was purely ceremonial. He had no power or influence in the league and fell prey to the efforts of the powerful Gus Greenlee, who owned the Pittsburgh Craw-fords, and who saw to it that other owners boycotted the 1938 meeting of the league that Morton called. The commissioner’s post was abolished later that year.

Morton held on to his Civil Service Commission contact, and on July 16, 1946, he was elected president of the commission, a position that he held until his retirement on July 10, 1948. By then he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Morton, who never married, returned to Washington, D.C., where he died when his hospital bed caught fire from a burning cigarette. His sole survivor was his brother Frederick Morton, of Washington. After his funeral was held in New York, he was buried in Wood-lawn Cemetery. Ferdinand W. Morton led a colorful life in Harlem, controlling the black Democratic machine known as Black Tammany and serving as the designated leader of the United Colored Democracy.

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