When Kathryn Morgan, leading folklorist, former Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot Emerita Professor in History and Folklore at Swarthmore College (and a powerful storyteller and performer), first wrote down and reflected upon her African American family stories of survival in 1974, she anticipated the fields of family folklore and storytelling. Her book, Children of Strangers, the first work of African American family folklore by a folklorist, remains a landmark. A fictional work in progress continues her powerful consideration of place, voice, memory, ancestors and African American experience: meditations and lessons on courage and love that are relevant for everyone. She had both qualities in large measure.
Morgan arrived at Swarthmore College in 1970 as the college's first African American professor and later became the first African American woman to be granted tenure there. At Swarthmore, Morgan taught classes on oral history, folk history, and folklife. Though popular with students, fellow historians in the department dismissed her subjects as invalid forms of history. At the end of her initial appointment in 1976, Morgan was denied tenure, prompting both black and white students to protest the decision. When asked to join a class action discrimination suit already underway against Swarthmore College that year, she agreed. The day before she was to testify, Morgan was awarded tenure; she testified anyway.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Morgan earned an MA from Howard University and an MA and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Her 1970 Ph. D. dissertation, as yet unpublished, was "The Ex-Slave Narratives: A Source for Folk History." A former executive board member of the American Folklore Society, she has taught and spoken widely on African American folklore, history, and culture. Additional professional affiliations have included the National Council of Black Studies, the African American Folklore Association, the National Afrocentric Institute, and the Philadelphia Folklore Project, upon whose board she sat in the early 1990s. Recent projects included a book of poetry with artist Syd Carpenter, a revision of her dissertation on ex-slave narratives, and another book of poetry. (Courtesy Swarthmore College for some of the above. Photograph Eleftherios Kostans/Swarthmore College. Used with permission).
Envisions (poetry by Kathryn L. Morgan, illustrations by Syd Carpenter) Artist's book.
Weep not for me: old souls speak, in progress
The Ex-Slave Narrative as Folk History (selections from Ph.D. dissertation) in progress
Children of Strangers: The Stories of a Black Family. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980.
"More excerpts from The Midnight Sun," The Journal of Ethnic Studies 5:1 (Spring 1977) 77-89.
"Excerpts from The Midnight Sun," The Journal of Ethnic Studies 4:2 (Summer 1976) 49- 59.
"On Black Image and Blackness," Black World (December 1973) 23-29, 84-85.
"Caddy Buffers: Legends of a Middle-Class Negro Family in Philadelphia," in Alan Dundes, ed., Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973. pp. 595-610. Reprinted from Keystone Folklore Quarterly 11 (1966), pp. 67-88.
The Storytellers (1979) [on youtube]
Kathryn Morgan: http://www.swarthmore.edu/x31577.xml
Bonnie Cook. Kathryn Lawson Morgan, 91, folklorist and historian. Philadelphia Inquirer, December 1, 2010.
Jeffrey Lott, The World is a Story: Kathryn Morgan Speaks. Swarthmore College Bulletin. July 2009.
Read her work. In 2004-5, PFP began our "Local Knowledge" project with a program on African American storytelling at Art Sanctuary, featuring Dr. Morgan, Linda Goss and Thelma Shelton Robinson. These questions for discussing Children of Strangers date to then, and we share them here: Questions for discussion: Children of Strangers. Who were the children of strangers? Discuss the relationship between Kate, Albert and Caddy. Who was Rosebud, and what does her story have to do with self-knowledge? So Caddy made Maggie walk over the bridge. . . So what?
Discuss one of Maggie's stories of race. What, if anything, do these stories reveal about self-knowledge? One of the reviewers of Children of Strangers said that Albert was "a sweet man." Do you agree or disagree? Does this have anything to do with self-knowledge?