Epilogue | Jack Morton Sr.

Restaurateur won uphill battles

ST. PETERSBURG — Ever since the industrial accident that cost him an eye, Jack Morton's vision was in black and white: a darkened eyeglass lens over his damaged eye, a clear lens over the good one.

It was how he saw the world. And it was how he believed the world saw him.

Mr. Morton believed people judged him based on his skin color and his injury. This at times made him angry.

Like when he had to train white supervisors who he knew were not qualified to boss him around. Or when, later in life, banks run by white men refused to give him loans to help him open a restaurant.

Still, he opened several restaurants in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and became one of the best-known black restaurateurs in St. Petersburg.

It was an era in the city marked by racial tension, including the quarantining of black neighborhoods and race riots.

Mr. Morton saw it all from his kitchen. And he had his opinions about what was happening.

Mr. Morton died May 25, of cancer. He was 86.

"If he'd have been another race, he would have been a millionaire," said Pauline Morton, 72, Mr. Morton's wife. "Unfortunately, he just happened to be black."

Mr. Morton grew up in Brunswick, Ga., two hours from the plantation where his grandfather worked as a slave. He suffered a disfiguring injury as an adolescent while cutting a sheet of plywood with a power saw.

The saw kicked, hitting his right eye and face.

A white doctor stitched the gash, but did little else. Mr. Morton lost his sight in the eye. To hide the injury, Mr. Morton wore eyeglasses with one lens black, the other clear.

The accident had occurred while he was working for a carnival.

"Child labor laws didn't apply," said Mel Williams, Mr. Morton's son-in-law.

Through a succession of cooking jobs, Mr. Morton learned how to bake pastries. He followed that up by working at resorts in the summer, then for the Princess Martha Hotel and other places.

Mr. Morton suspected that his race prevented him from advancement, his family said.

"He knew he was better than some of the chefs he worked under," said Williams, 61.

Sometimes he argued with them and got fired.

"He probably would have risen further if he had stayed in those jobs," Williams said. "But I feel it led to opening his own restaurant."

In the early 1960s, Mr. Morton opened Notrom's Restaurant (his name, spelled backward) on Second Avenue N. As he was taking out the trash behind the restaurant, a younger woman passed by in the alley.

"He said, 'Hello, sweetheart, how are you doing?'" said Pauline Morton, 72. They married three years later.

He later opened Flamingo Barbecue on 10th Avenue S. His fall-off-the-bone ribs proved popular — especially with an original sauce he sold separately. The sauce still sells to this day — about 40 years after the restaurant closed.

But Mr. Morton always operated on a shoestring budget, and was unprepared for fluctuations in the market.

"He was always undercapitalized, never able to get loans from banks," Williams said. He raised extra money by buying and fixing up houses, then selling them.

He worked long hours, always feeling as if he were swimming upstream.

In 1972, he opened Captain Jack's Chicken Shack on 34th Street S, site of the current Big Tim's Bar-B-Que.

Racial disturbances had nearly closed four high schools a year earlier. And a few years before that, Mr. Morton's neighborhood was part of the city where officials had shut off to alcohol and gasoline sales. This didn't sit well with him.

"He was proudest of Captain Jack's, to be able to open that up on 34th Street with all of the disturbances around that time," his wife said.

He eventually closed that restaurant, too, then went back to work for other restaurants. His convictions about right and wrong never waned.

Sometimes, he argued with family members, just for fun. Whether politics, religion or race relations, Mr. Morton was always up for a good verbal spar.

"We just loved it," Williams said. "I'd say, 'Come on over, we'll find something to argue about.' "

Later in life, Mr. Morton decided to head to the doctor. A University of South Florida physician took another look at his eye. Turns out, it wasn't sightless.

Doctors restored 25 percent vision in the eye, better than he had been able to see in 70 years.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

Jack Morton Sr.

Born: July 17, 1922.

Died: May 25, 2009.

Survivors: wife, Pauline; daughters, Alma Walker, Priscilla Williams and her husband, Mel, and Mary Denmark and her husband, Maurice; sons, Leon and his wife, Adrienne, Sam and Willie Scott; 11 grandchildren; 13 great-grandchildren.

Restaurateur won uphill battles 06/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 1, 2009 10:53pm]

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