CLEVELAND — Toni Morrison, the Lorain native who became the first black woman to receive the Nobel Prize in literature, has died at the age of 88. Her literary works such as "Beloved," "The Bluest Eye" and the "Song of Soloman," illuminated the agonies and triumphs of black life in America. Her legacy as one of the country’s most prolific writers and literary pioneers will live on through generations, and it all started right here in Ohio.
Born Chloe Wofford on Feb. 18, 1931 in Lorain to Ramah Willis, a homemaker, and George Wofford, a shipyard welder, her childhood began in the racially integrated streets of Ohio steel country on Elyria Avenue. She was the second four children and described her neighborhood home as “neither plantation nor ghetto,” according to the Elyria Chronicle.
She was an eager learner and a precocious reader who devoured books from literary icons like Jane Austen and Mark Twain. To make money, she cleaned houses for white families and worked as a secretary to the head librarian at the Lorain Public Library. In a well-told account of her life, Cincinnati magazine reported that 50 years later she still remembered their names: Miss Lawless and Miss Ambrose. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,” she once told an audience at Oberlin College, “the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie."
After graduating from Lorain High School, Morrison joined a writers group at Howard University that had only one rule: each month, each member had to bring something to share. She shared vivid stories of her childhood memories. One of those memories would later be the basis of her first book: The Bluest Eye. She’d been walking with her friend Eunice, when the two started discussing if God existed. For her, he did. But her friend Eunice disagreed.
“I have been praying for blue eyes for two years,” Eunice explained, “and I don’t have them.”
Morrison wanted to tell the story, a story that needed to be told, about her friend who felt ugly for not being white, trying to understand why she didn’t see her own beauty.
When The Bluest Eye came out in 1970, her talents were immediately clear.
According to Cincinnati, she hated when her family was “reduced to a single timeline,” noting the truth that her grandfather had been born in slavery in Alabama, and that her parents followed the Great Migration to Ohio.
Ohio influenced 'Beloved'
Perhaps one of the more prolific works by Morrison is "Beloved." She got the idea while still working as an editor at Random house, working on an important project titled “The Black Book,” a scrapbook that spanned three centuries of African American life— pictures of enslaved people’s artwork, posters from slave auctions, letter and poems.
One day while sifting through materials, Morrison read a clipping from 1856 about a story of Margaret Garner, who was born on a plantation in Boone County, Kentucky, and spent her entire life within a few miles from Cincinnati.
Morrison says because she was born in Boone County, on what she described in "Beloved" as "the bloody side of the Ohio River," Garner and her family were enslaved. One winter night, they fled to Covington and crossed the frozen river into Cincinnati with a group of other slaves. While some made it to Canada, the Garner family became trapped in a Cincinnati house. As U.S. Marshals closed in on the property, Garner decided to cut the throat of her 2-year-old daughter, killing her.
After reading the clipping, Morrison says what struck her was not only the brutal narrative but its narrator's sense of peace. For years, Morrison kept thinking about Garner and her choice to murder her own child. Morrison left her job at Random House to pursue the topic as a book. "Beloved" took four years to produce. She immersed herself in Ohio history by talking to Ohio abolitionists and its treatment of black citizens after the Civil War.
In the article in Cincinnati magazine, she anchored the novel in facts and specifics, as she always had done. "Ohio," Morrison observed, “is a curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country and what was base.”
Legacy lives on
Morrison's legacy lives on in every sentence, page and novel she's written throughout her career. In 2016, "The Bench By The Road Project" was launched by the Toni Morrison Society in honor of the Nobel Laureate and her contributions to America.
The bench, located near the Cozad Bates House in Cleveland's University Circle neighborhood, 11508 Mayfield Road near Euclid Avenue, is in memory of Cleveland's African-American community and white abolitionists communities, as well those who were formerly enslaved who made the journey up north on the Underground Railroad.