Black History Makers: Dr. John Morton-Finney

Dr. John Morton-Finney

Dr. John Morton-Finney was a lifelong scholar, born June 25, 1889, in Uniontown, Kentucky. He was one of seven children born to a former slave father named George and a free mother named Maryatta Gordon Morton-Finney. His parents prioritized education up until his mother passed when he was only 14-years-old.

Following her death, John, along with his siblings were sent to live on their grandfather’s farm in Missouri. John loved to learn and is said to have walked 12 miles a day to and from school during this time.

After high school he briefly attended Lincoln College in Jefferson City, Missouri, leaving his studies to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1911 with the 24th Infantry Regiment. An African American regiment best known as The Buffalo Soldiers. During his stint he was promoted to sergeant but due to racial discrimination he wasn’t paid an officer’s commission. He was honorably discharged in 1914.

He returned to his studies at Lincoln College and earned his first degree. It was during this time that he met Pauline Angeline Ray, whom he would eventually marry. He moved with his wife to Indianapolis, and there they welcomed their only child, a daughter named Gloria.

John began teaching at Crispus Attucks High School. He was fluent in six languages and taught Greek, Latin, German, Spanish, and French. He became the dean of foreign languages and taught the importance of quality education. He invited Black presidents of historically Black colleges and opened doors for students to receive college scholarships. He taught for Indianapolis Public Schools for 47 years.

Throughout his tenure, John pursued higher education and earned 11 degrees. He earned his first bachelor’s from Lincoln College in 1920. His second bachelor’s from Iowa State University. His third from Butler University in 1965. At the graduate level he received master’s degrees from Indiana University in education and in French in 1925 and 1933. He then earned five law degrees, the first from Lincoln College in 1935, then Indiana Law School in 1944, IU School of Law in 1946, Martin University in 1995, a Doctor of Letters from Lincoln University in 1985, and finally an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1989 from Butler University.

In 1972, at the age of 83, John was admitted to practice law before the United States Supreme Court. In 1991, he was inducted to the National Bar Association Hall of Fame at the age of 102. He was one of the longest practicing attorneys in the United States upon his retirement in 1996 at the age of 107.

The last surviving Buffalo Solider and oldest veteran in the state of Indiana upon his death on January 28, 1998, in Indianapolis, Indiana, he was buried with full military honors at Crown Hill Cemetery. He was 108 years of age upon passing.

“I never stop studying. There’s always lots to learn. When you stop learning, that’s about the end of you.”

Dr. John Morton-Finney