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Remembering Gordon Morgan, “first, last, and always a sociologist”

Interview of Dan Ferritor conducted by Alana Inlow

Dr. Gordon Morgan, shown from the shoulders up, wearing a tweed jacket, white button-down, and a tie. Gordon is looking at the camera and smiling.
Dr. Gordon Morgan, PhD WSU Sociology 1961; Professor of Sociology, University of Arkansas (photo source: news.uark.edu).

Dr. Gordon Morgan, professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of Arkansas, and a PhD graduate of WSU Sociology in 1961, passed away in December 2019. Dr. Morgan’s legacy lives on through a WSU Department of Sociology fellowship named after him and his wife, Izola (Gordon D. Morgan and Izola P. Morgan Graduate Fellowship), as well as through the students and colleagues he has greatly influenced over the decades.

Below are excerpts from a conversation with University of Arkansas Chancellor Emeritus, Dr. Dan Ferritor, a close friend and colleague of Gordon Morgan:

I first met Gordon in August of 1973. We were colleagues in the sociology department at University of Arkansas. For probably 13 years or so, I was chairperson of the department and I knew him in that capacity. Then I was chancellor of the university for another 13, and I knew him in that capacity. When I left the chancellor’s office and went back a few years before I retired, Gordon and I shared an office, so I knew him in that capacity. And in each capacity, by the way, I experienced a different Gordon Morgan.

In the academic settings, almost everything that I felt about Gordon came because of either his teaching or his mentoring of students. His mentoring went way, way, way beyond what we often think of as mentoring. I have got to believe that it was in part because Gordon was a real trailblazer. He graduated with a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas in 1956. That would have made him one of our first black graduates here at University of Arkansas, and we were the first Southern university to integrate, and it was done without a lawsuit. I think the first black graduates were probably in 1955, and Gordon had to have been among the first one or two graduate students. Although, he was never remembered for that. That part of his life never got talked about. I say that because a part of his mentoring, because he really was a pioneer, and he attracted a lot of African American students to him in all kinds of capacities, and it had nothing to do with sociology, but it had to do with, the fact that he was a black man, and he was a black man in a world that was predominantly white.

Gordon shown from the waist up, wearing a tweed jacket, white button-down, a tie, and a brown pork-pie hat. He is standing in front of a window, looking into the camera, and smiling.
Dr. Gordon Morgan (photo source: news.uark.edu)

The population in Arkansas is probably about 15% African American. If you look at the distribution, the African American population tends to be clustered in central-eastern and southeastern Arkansas. Northwestern Arkansas, when I moved here in 1967, and Gordon moved here in 1969 when he started [working] at the University of Arkansas, I don’t believe we had, in Washington County [northwestern Arkansas], much higher than a 1% African American population. I’m making those numbers up, but I can’t believe we had much more than that. If it’s more than 3% now I’d be surprised. So, certainly the African American students were attracted to Gordon, but that wasn’t the only demographic attracted to Gordon. People of all ilks, international students, certainly white students and African American students, were all drawn to him. He just had a way of, I don’t know, taking them where they were, listening to whatever it was they had to say, and moving on from there. So, when I think about Gordon, I think about that part of him.

I also think about his teaching because he was a really nonconventional teacher. There was nothing he would not do to get an idea across. He always used props; he was not your basic lecturer. He lectured of course because that is what we do, but that wasn’t all he did. It was kind of, showing is better than telling. A picture is worth a thousand words. He looked at what he was trying to teach, he looked at the students that he had, and he said, “what can I do that will most likely turn them onto thinking about what I have to say?” Like I had in my eulogy, one of the examples of a thing he’d do when he taught about capital punishment. He came at it in a way that I just thought, “Man, why didn’t I think of that?”

Excerpt from Ferritor’s eulogy at Morgan’s memorial:

So, with the cost of the electric chair in the news he [Gordon Morgan] wanted to use that to get students to think about the issue [capital punishment]. He went out and bought a corrugated tub, several gallons of water, an electric cord with open frayed wires on one end. He brought to class the tub, water, wire and receipts for it all, about $15.00 as I remember and told his class that instead of spending $50,000 the state could use his set up.  Fill up the tub with water, plug in the wire and put the loose ends in the water and push the convicted person’s head in and we’re done, and the state saved $49,985.  The students immediately protested that this was inhumane. Gordon had them. They began to think about capital punishment in a new way. He didn’t want to change their minds about it but rather to strip away the gloss we put on any public policy and talk about what society was doing.

And he did a lot of amazing things. He also did some things that fell flat on their face, sometimes students would look at him, like “Are you crazy?” And you know, I would see him walking down the hall with some contraption and I’d think, “What in heaven’s name is Gordon up to now?” I think of him as a classic faculty member.

Because he was the first African American faculty member, he got put on every damn committee the university and department had, many of them two or three times. He was, as all our early African American faculty were, overburdened with the kind of thing that you don’t get credit for; the things that you do for the university, they are important and they take up a lot of time, and they’re not that demanding in terms of your intellectual input, but they do use up some clock hours, and Gordon just did so much of that, I used to feel sorry for him. But I tried to protect him as chairperson, to keep him off at least some of the departmental committees. He was constantly working in one way or another, whether it was a talk he was going to give or writing “letters to the editor.” You know, when he saw something that he thought a sociologist had a hunting license to go after, he went after it. And he always signed his letters to the editor, “Gordon D. Morgan, PhD, Professor of Sociology, University of Arkansas.” And I’d think, “just put Gordon Morgan there!” But he didn’t, because he was very proud of who he was, he was proud of his university. He was also enormously proud of Washington State University. He had a good experience there. He funded a fellowship for multicultural students. I know that his time at WSU was very productive for him and he thought very highly of Washington State.

A book with a black and white photo of a building on the cover. The book is called "The Edge of Campus." It was written by Gordon Morgan and his wife Izola.
The Edge of Campus by Gordon D. Morgan and Izola Preston (photo source: amazon.com)

He was, as I said, a public sociologist. Gordon wrote a piece on the University of Arkansas, the early African American experience there titled, The Edge of Campus. He and Izola, his wife, wrote that one. I thought it was an outstanding piece on the African American experience at the University of Arkansas. It was the main thing that Gordon and Izola did together that I know of. Our end mark building on campus is called Old Main, it’s the first building on campus, and the original title of their book was In the Shadow of Old Main, which I thought was better than, The Edge of Campus. Obviously, Gordon didn’t agree with me.

He went to Africa, I think that was pretty soon after his PhD, in fact he might have gone to Africa from Washington State, I don’t remember. It was on a Ford Fellowship; I’m trusting my memory on that. But it was on a Ford Fellowship, and Izola and I think the whole family went, but I don’t know how many kids they had in those days. But they went and I know they were a great team in Africa. She is really fond of their time in Africa because I think they were maybe at the embassy, or somehow they were connected because she said they used to kind of have to represent the country over there, at parties and events, and she said she never knew how they were supposed to behave. She said it was just an exciting time, and in that time, Gordon got to meet Nelson Mandela [South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999], and Idi Amin [Ugandan military officer who served as the President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979]. He used to go to a bar I think, and Idi Amin was a sergeant in the military in those days, and Gordon would talk to him in this bar. Gordon wasn’t a big drinker, so I never quite understood what he was doing in a bar.

A younger Gordon Morgan shown standing, from the knees up, wearing a suit. Gordon is standing among shelves filled with books and papers. He is holding an open book in one hand, his other hand is in his pocket. He is looking at the camera and smiling. The photo is black and white.
Dr. Gordon Morgan (photo source: news.uark.edu)

Maybe participant observation, I’ll give him credit on that one. And he met Jomo Kenyatta [Kenyan anti-colonial activist and politician who governed Kenya as its Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964 and then as its first President from 1964 to his death in 1978]. He didn’t talk much about it other than that it was a neat time to be in Africa and he did get to meet those people.

I have known very few people like Gordon. Sometimes I get a little discouraged with our field—sorry about that. I’ve often had the impression that some sociologists have quit asking the important questions. But Gordon never questioned that. He never talked about it as public sociology, but I always thought of him as being involved in public sociology. He wrote letters to editors; he would go talk where anybody would listen to him. He wasn’t edgy, but he was on the edge. He was first, last, and always a sociologist.