Toni Morrison was born on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. The second of four children, Morrison’s birth name was Chloe Anthony Wofford. Although she grew up in a semi-integrated area, racial discrimination was a constant threat. When Morrison was two years old, the owner of her family’s apartment building set their home on fire while they were inside because they were unable to afford the rent. Morrison turned her attention to her studies and became an avid reader. She was able to use her intellect on the debate team, her school’s yearbook staff, and eventually as a secretary for the head librarian at the Lorain Public Library. When she was twelve years old, she converted to Catholicism and was baptized under the name Anthony after Saint Anthony of Padua. She later went by the nickname “Toni” after this saint.
In 1949, Morrison decided to attend a historically black institution for her college education. She moved to Washington, D.C. to attend Howard University. While in college, Morrison experienced racial segregation in a new way. She joined the university’s theatrical group called the Howard University Players, and frequently toured the segregated south with the play. In addition, she witnessed how racial hierarchy divided people of color based on their skin tone. However, the community at Howard University also allowed her to make connections with other writers, artists, and activists that influenced her work. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English, Morrison attended Cornell University to earn the Master of Arts in English. When she graduated in 1955, she began teaching English at Texas Southern University but returned to Howard University as a professor. While back at the university, Morrison taught the young civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, and met her husband Harold Morrison. The couple had two children, Harold and Slade.
After teaching at Howard University for seven years, Morrison moved to Syracuse, New York to become an editor for the textbook division of Random House publishing. Within two years, she transferred to the New York City branch of the company and began to edit fiction and books by African-American authors. Although she worked for a publishing company, Morrison did not publish her first novel called The Bluest Eye until was she was 39 years old. Three years later, Morrison published her second novel called Sula, that was nominated for the National Book Award. By her third novel in 1977, Toni Morrison became a household name. Continue reading from National Women's History Museum