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John Morton-Finney Indiana’s Original Renaissance Man

I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Martin University event, “The Least Understood Branch.” Martin University hosted the gathering of over 200 judges, attorneys, local residents and students for the Black History Month program, co-sponsored by the Indiana Supreme Court and the American Bar Association. I was privileged to give the presentation on the extraordinary life of the longest practicing attorney in the United States, John Morton Finney, a civil rights advocate, lawyer, educator and an Indianapolis resident. Morton-Finney touched my life before I was even born. 

Dr. Morton-Finney taught my mother and my father while they, along with all other Indianapolis African American children, attended Crispus Attucks High School – a segregated school established in 1927. Morton-Finney was born to a free woman and a former slave in 1889.  His family “migrated” from what is now Nigeria and because of his Nigerian roots Morton-Finney was crowned Adeniran I Paramount Chief of the Yoruba descendants in Indiana in 1979.  He grew up in a family of seven children where poetry readings and discussions of politics were part of regular evening activities.  He is often remembered as the last surviving member of the Buffalo Soldiers, part of the 10th cavalry and an historic group of gallant and elite African American soldiers who fought mainly in the Western U.S.  They were called Buffalo Soldiers because the Native Americans likened their hair quality to the hair of a buffalo. 

I learned of the Buffalo Soldiers during my studies at the U.S. Military Academy. Morton-Finney joined the army in 1911 and served in the Philippines until 1914.  He sought to become an officer but was denied the promotion because of his race.  To add further insult to injury his commander told him he would not be allowed inside the officers’ club.  Morton-Finney responded in his own way, “I don’t want to go to the officers’ club I want to be an officer.”  Despite that slight he was honored to receive a citation for his service.  He left the army and earned his first degree from Lincoln College in Missouri.  Morton-Finney began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri, but when World War I broke out he rejoined the military and served honorably in France with the American Expeditionary Force. 

After earning degrees in math, French and history, Morton-Finney married Pauline Ray and the couple moved to Indianapolis in 1922.  He was one of the first teachers hired at Crispus Attucks High School. Morton-Finney headed the foreign language department where he taught Greek, Latin, German, Spanish and French.  Among his students was my mother, Louise Arnold, who took French with Dr. Morton-Finney and had nothing but kind words to say about his stern but effective way of teaching.  Many other students remembered him as a teacher who taught them how to set goals, avoid using racism as an excuse not to succeed and respect their history and culture. In 1935, with his first of five law degrees, Morton-Finney was admitted to practice law in the state of Indiana.  The chief of the Board of Law Examiners at the time was Remster A. Bingham, a relative of the founding partner of Bingham Greenebaum Doll.   In 1971, at the age of 82, he brought suit to challenge Indiana school boards to cease setting the mandatory retirement age at 66.  He lost, and was forced to retire from his teaching position. 

However, he did not retire from practicing law.  He was admitted to the Supreme Court of the United States at the age of 83.  He was practicing law at the ripe age of 107 and is known as the longest practicing lawyer in the U.S.  He practiced for 85 years. Martin-Finney completed his final degree course at Butler University at age 75.  In all he obtained 11 degrees, 5 in law and others in mathematics, history and sociology. When asked on his 100th birthday why he continued to learn, he responded that he “gets interested in so many things, there is so much to know in the world and it’s such a pleasure for me to learn. 

Besides, a cultivated man would never say I finished my education because he graduated from college.” People for generations will be reminded of the achievements of Morton-Finney.  Buildings throughout Indianapolis have been renamed in his honor. It is all a lasting and well-deserved tribute for John Morton-Finney, a man who spent a majority of his 107 years serving the nation, the community and those who were privileged to come in contact with him.

To learn more about Roderick Morgan and his practice, visit his profile.

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