A career in law would feel challenging enough for most, but not for Mortimer Lebowitz. After attending law school for two years, he did not feel as excited by it as he thought he should. His father, a retailer in New York City, offered him an alternative: follow in his father’s footsteps and open his own store in Washington, DC. Lebowitz accepted and with his father’s help, opened his first store, Morton’s, at the corner of 7th and D streets NW. Opening in 1933, Morton’s had a unique identity because of its philosophy, business practices, and ability to establish customer loyalty throughout the DMV.
Lebowitz, from the beginning, noted two obvious gaps and flaws in the DC department store market: selling discounted merchandise, and, most importantly, the fact that many Washington retailers refused to service or accommodate African American customers. Lebowitz used both gaps to his advantage by selling products for much less than his competitors, and providing the same level of service to both white and African American customers. These practices garnered quick loyalty amongst budget shoppers and Washington’s African American community, who were otherwise refused service or forced to use segregated entrances, fitting rooms, and service counters in other department stores.
The store’s integration policies did not end at the customer, either. The store was the first department store in the area to hire and promote African American employees to the same positions as their white counterparts, even at the protest of some of the white employees. Lebowitz increasingly hired African American employees because of the resistance he faced, which further solidified customer loyalty. Lebowitz had a long history of supporting civil rights organizations and participating in the movement, and was a powerful ally throughout the mid-20th century.
By the 1960s, Morton’s had grown to include branch stores in Maryland and Virginia, with the store’s budget-friendly merchandise drawing in new shoppers at each new location. The expansions continued into the next decade, even while some of its locations moved in the aftermath of the 1968 riots and because of Metro’s construction through downtown in the 1970s.
Unlike other department stores that faced financial obstacles that resulted in their closures, Morton’s closed with its owner’s retirement. Lebowitz, along with two close assistants, maintained control of the company throughout its lifetime; after both assistants passed away, Lebowitz decided to retire and close the stores down as well. At 81 years old, Lebowitz felt that he could no longer operate the stores and had not passed his business down to anyone else. The stores closed by year’s end in 1993, with shoppers distressed to no longer have their go-to budget department store.
Within Downtown Historic District.
This site is a stop on the "Finding Style in DC: Navigating DC’s Shopping Scene" tour.