When Chloe Ardelia Wofford was born in Lorain, Ohio, on Feb 18, 1931, those attending her birth could hardly have dreamed the heights that she would attain. That baby would grow up to be known to the world as Toni Morrison, winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in literature, and one of the most famous authors, poets and essayist of the 20th century.
Her father, George Wofford, was 15 years old when he fled rural Georgia after two black men were lynched near his home. Traumatized by the event, he sought to escape the racism of the south by going north. Her mother’s family left Georgia for the same reason, seeking a better life in Lorain, Ohio.
Together George and his wife Ramah would raise four children. But life for Toni’s parents in the integrated north was not always perfect. When Toni was two years old, her parents were unable to pay the rent. The landlord set fire to the home where they lived, leaving the family homeless. But like the characters of their daughters’ novels, they survived.
Despite the turmoil of her youth, Toni’s parents instilled in her a legacy of her African-American heritage, a knowledge of traditional African American folklore, and the courage to speak out for her race. She brought that legacy to her writings and established herself as one of the premier authors of the 20th century. Her writings, which spanned more than four decades, included a total of 11 novels that chronicle the lives of black women and brought their stories, their pain and their suffering to millions around the world. Her books, such as the autobiographical The Bluest Eyes, are staples of reading lists, not only for students of black studies, but students of American literature around the world.
When Oprah Winfrey selected Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved for her book club, a book that was later made into a movie, her fame spread to popular culture and broadened her audience. Winfrey ultimately selected four of her books for her book club.
Chloe, who changed her name to Toni, graduated from Howard University in 1953. She went on to earn a Master of Arts from Cornell University in 1955. Her marriage to Harold Morrison ended in divorce in 1964.
Before becoming a writer, Morrison broke racial barriers as an editor for Random House Publishers, where she worked for 19 years, helping other black authors such as Toni Cade Bambara, Gayl Jones and Angela Davis gain success in the literary world. From 1989 until her retirement in 2006, she was a Professor of Humanities at Princeton University. Over the course of her literary career she won virtually every award for literature, a Grammy nomination for her literary recordings and, in 1996, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded her its highest honor for achievement in humanities. She was the last American novelist to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
In a 1998 interview with Charlie Rose of PBS, Morrison declared “Don’t you understand that people who practice racism are bereft? There is something distorted about their psyche. If you can only be tall because someone is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is, white people have a very, very serious problem. And they should start thinking about what they can do about it.”
Morrison used her voice to deliver a message of understanding between the races — a message that will live on for generations as the nation mourns her passing, at age 88.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and president of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.