Ferdinand Q. Morton, political leader, attorney, and baseball commissioner, was born to two former slaves named Edward James Morton and Mattie Shelton Morton on September 9, 1881, in Macon, Mississippi. His father moved their family to Washington D.C. in 1890 because he got a job as a clerk in the U.S. Treasury. Ferdinand attended public school in the District of Columbia before enrolling in Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.
After graduating in 1902, Morton enrolled at Harvard University where initially he did well, joining the intercollegiate debate team. A change in debate team credits and financial problems forced Morton to leave Harvard in 1905, his junior year. Morton then enrolled in Boston University Law School in the fall of 1905, despite not being a college graduate. After studying there for a year and a half, he left without getting his degree again because of financial issues.
In 1908 Morton moved to New York City and soon developed an interest in politics. He gave speeches on behalf of Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, in the 1908 presidential campaign at a time when most African Americans were Republicans. After the election, Morton worked for two years as a law clerk before he passed the New York State Bar exam in 1910.
Morton then joined the United Colored Democracy (UCD), an organization with the purpose of swinging New York African Americans from the Republicans to the Democrats. Charles F. Murphy, then head of Tammany Hall, the democratic political machine in New York at that time, admired the intellect and speaking skills of Morton and in 1915 urged him to move to Harlem to become the leader of the UCD in the section of the city that was increasingly becoming the home of New York’s African Americans.
After practicing law for six years, Morton was appointed assistant district attorney for New York County in 1916, and five years later, he took charge of the office’s Indictment Bureau in 1921. On January 1, 1922, New York Mayor John F. Hylan appointed Morton as the first black member of the New York Municipal Civil Service Commission. There he used his influence to help guarantee an increase in the number of African American city employees.
Morton continued to be the leader of the UCD throughout the 1920s, resisting efforts by Tammany Hall to incorporate it into other Democratic political organizations. Realizing this would decrease the influence of African Americans in the party, Morton opposed this effort. His fight against Tammany Hall continued until Republican Mayor Fiorello La Guardia forced Morton to resign from the position in 1933.
In 1935 Morton became baseball commissioner of the Negro National League, serving until 1938 when the office of commissioner was abolished. On July 16, 1946, Morton was elected president of the New York City Civil Service Commission and held the position until Parkinson’s disease made him too ill to continue. He retired on January 10, 1948. Morton, who never married, died on November 8, 1949, in Washington D.C., after a lit cigarette caught his hospital bed on fire. He was sixty-eight.