John Morton-Finney: Renaissance man

John Morton-Finney, (June 25, 1889 – January 28, 1998) was born in Uniontown, KY, the son of a former slave father and a free mother and was one of seven children. He became a soldier, educator, lawyer, and civil rights activist.

When Morton-Finney's mother died, his father was unable to care for the large family and sent John to live with his grandfather in Missouri.

In 1911, Morton-Finney joined the U.S. Army and became part of the Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to an all-black cavalry regiment in pre-World War I days.

free money for college
Painting of Buffalo Soldiers

Cheyenne warriors gave the regiment its name in 1867 because the Native Americans likened their hair quality to the hair of a buffalo and as a testament to the soldiers' fierce fighting abilities.

Morton-Finney served in the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment from 1911-1914 and went to the Philippines. He rose to the rank of sergeant and applied for an officer’s commission. In 1913, his commander told him that, although he had the intelligence and the education to be an officer, he was disqualified due to his race. When the commander said that he wouldn’t be able to go to the officer’s club, Morton-Finney responded that he didn’t want to go to the officer’s club; he wanted to be an officer. He earned a citation from General John J. Pershing for his service in the Philippines.

After serving in the Philippines, he returned to the states in 1914 and, two years later, completed a degree at Lincoln College in Missouri. He took a teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri. But when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917,  he rejoined the military and served honorably in France with the American Expeditionary Force. 

After the war, he earned degrees in math, French, and history. At Lincoln College, he heard about a new French teacher, Pauline Ray, with a degree from Cornell University. Morton-Finney signed into her class and won her heart. They were married and moved to Indianapolis in 1922 and John went back to teaching. He taught junior high math and social studies at Indianapolis Public Schools #27 and #17 where he also served as principal.

In 1925, Morton-Finney completed an IU master's degree in education and French. He taught languages in segregated schools for African-American students, ending up at the newly opened Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis.

Crispus Attucks High School

Finney was the first teacher hired when Crispus Attucks High School opened in 1927 and taught in several Indianapolis Public Schools. 

The school was intended to provide a model for the education of African American students. Fluent in six languages, Morton-Finney became the head of the foreign language department at Attucks, the largest foreign languages department at any Indiana high school at the time. Morton-Finney taught Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, and French. According to his daughter, Gloria, John Morton-Finney invited presidents from black colleges to speak to the students. He made it possible for Crispus Attucks students to obtain scholarships to attend college.

An ordinary person might have been satisfied to stop there, but Morton-Finney was far from ordinary — or satisfied. In 1935, he earned his first law degree, the first of five. Morton-Finney was admitted to practice law in the state of Indiana in 1935.  In 1944, Morton-Finney earned an L.L.B., and then in 1946, a J.D., both from IU. 

In 1971, at the age of 82, he brought suit to challenge Indiana school boards to cease setting the mandatory retirement age at 66.  He lost and was forced to retire from his teaching position after 47 years. 

johnmortonfinneyIn 1991, Morton-Finney was inducted into the National Bar Association Hall of Fame in Washington, and in the same year, he visited with President George Bush in the Rose Garden of the White House. Morton-Finney reported that President Bush was the second U.S. president he had met — the first was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

President Bush cited Morton-Finney as a model for educating ourselves and others. "If he's still ready and willing to learn, so can we all be," the president said. "And if he's always looking for new ideas and new ways of thinking, so must the entire system of American education."

In his long and remarkable life, John Morton-Finney earned 12 degrees, his last at 75 from Butler University. At the age of 100, colleagues report that he still attended law school seminars "with the eagerness of a first-year student." He practiced law until he was 107 and died on January 28, 1998, at the age of 108.

He was the last surviving member of the Buffalo Soldiers and received a full honor military memorial service and was laid to rest at Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis, IN.

Part of the 2017 Black History Month Series