Kathryn Lawson Morgan, 91, folklorist and historian

Kathryn Lawson Morgan, 91, a pioneering folklorist and historian at Swarthmore College who believed that the folk stories passed down by African Americans offered a rich vein for scholars to mine, died Sunday, Nov. 28, of natural causes at Sterling Health Care, a nursing facility in Media.

In 1970, Dr. Morgan became the first African American professor hired by the college. Later, she was the first African American woman to receive tenure there.

She taught history at Swarthmore for 25 years, retiring in 1995 as Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot Professor Emerita of History.

Dr. Morgan's colleagues recalled a charismatic woman who bridged the gap from the work of W.E.B. DuBois to that of Malcolm X, and who listened carefully to family history.

"One of the first things I tell my students," Dr. Morgan once remarked to colleagues, "is to go home, look to your families, to the stories we were told as children. They're the most important stories in the world."

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Dr. Morgan earned a bachelor's degree from Howard University in 1952, a master's degree in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, and a doctorate in folklore from Penn in 1970.

In her dissertation, "The Ex-Slave Narrative as a Source for Folk History," she posited that the personal stories of blacks formed the crux of legitimate folklore, foreshadowing its acceptance by many years.

But it wasn't easy. When she taught folklore and folklife studies, history through folklore and literature, black women in historical perspective, and black culture and consciousness, fellow faculty considered her interest outside the mainstream.

She described tensions in her department in a 2000 Swarthmore College Bulletin interview, as well as the resulting fallout, when she was initially denied tenure. But through persuasion, a brilliant smile, and the strength of her personality, she prevailed.

"To know Kathryn Morgan was to be energized by her," said professor of studio art Syd Carpenter.

She acted as mentor to many. That guidance, said associate history professor Allison Dorsey, included teaching her students, "by example, the power of truth-telling and the value of standing one's ground."

Students loved her. In 1991, Dr. Morgan received an award from the college's Black Alumni Association in recognition of her contributions to the lives of African Americans at the college.

She knew firsthand the struggles of African Americans. In her 1980 seminal work, Children of Strangers: The Stories of a Black Family, she brought to life the attempts of five generations of women in her family to cope with the fear, anger, and anxiety of life in a hostile white society.

It was the first work of African American family folklore by a folklorist. "Family folklore was the antidote used by our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents," she said, "to help us counteract the poison of self-hate engendered by racism."

Dr. Morgan taught and spoke widely on African American folklore, history, and culture. In the 1970s, she held itinerant teaching positions at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges, the University of Delaware, and the University of California-Berkeley.

She was a member of the National Council of Black Studies, the African American Folklore Association, the National Afrocentric Institute, and the Philadelphia Folklore Project. In 1991, she became the first African American elected to the executive board of the American Folklore Society.

In 2000, a scholarship was established in her name to support students with an interest in black studies. Three years later, in collaboration with Carpenter, who provided illustrations, Envisions, a book of poetry, was published.

In spring 2009, the college community gathered at the inaugural Kathryn Morgan Poetry Festival to hear some of the poems. Dr. Morgan was present, and her distinctive laughter could be heard above the audience.

Surviving are a daughter, Susan Morgan Crooks; a grandson; and many nieces, nephews, great-nieces, and great-nephews.

Dr. Morgan married Ramous Hickman Morgan after meeting him at a USO dance. The two divorced in 1964, and he died in 1998.

A viewing will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, at Donohue Funeral Home, 8401 West Chester Pike, Upper Darby. A memorial service at the college is being planned for spring.

Memorial donations may be made to the Kathryn Morgan Scholarship Fund, c/o Swarthmore College Gift Records Office, 500 College Ave., Swarthmore, Pa. 19081.


Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.