Morris Nolton “Morrie” Turner
Morris Nolton “Morrie” Turner (December 11, 1923 – January 25, 2014) was an African American cartoonist, creator of the strip Wee Pals, the first American syndicated strip with an integrated cast of characters.
Turner got his first training in cartooning via the Art Instruction, Inc. home study correspondence course. During World War II, where he served as a mechanic with Tuskegee Airmen, his illustrations appeared in the newspaper Stars and Stripes. After the war, while working for the Oakland Police Department, he created the comic strip Baker’s Helper.
When Turner began questioning why there were no minorities in cartoons, his mentor, Charles M. Schulz of Peanuts fame, suggested he create one. Morris’ first attempt, Dinky Fellas, featured an all-black cast, but found publication in only one newspaper, the Chicago Defender. Turner integrated the strip, renaming it Wee Pals, and in 1965 it became the first American syndicated comic strip to have a cast of diverse ethnicity. Although the strip was only originally carried by five newspapers, after Martin Luther King‘s assassination in 1968, it was picked up by more than 100 papers.
Turner appeared as a guest on the May 14, 1973, episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, where he showed the host pictures he had drawn of several of his neighbors. Turner also presented a clip from his Kid Power animated series, which was airing Saturday mornings on ABC at the time. As well, during the 1972-73, Wee Pals on the Go was aired by ABC’s owned-and-operated station in San Francisco, KGO-TV. This Sunday morning show featured child actors who portrayed the main characters of Turner’s comic strip: Nipper, Randy, Sybil, Connie and Oliver. With and through the kids, Turner explored venues, activities and objects such as a candy factory and a train locomotive.
As the comic strip continued, Turner added characters of more and more ethnicities, as well as a child with a physical disability.
Turner contributed his talents to concerts by the Bay Area Little Symphony of Oakland, California. He drew pictures to the music and of children in the audience. On May 25, 2009, Turner visited Westlake Middle School in Oakland to give a lesson to the OASES Comic Book Preachers Class of drawing. Turner collaborated with the class’s students to create the book Wee the Kids from Oakland.
Turner died on January 25, 2014, at age 90.
Turner married Letha Mae Harvey on April 6, 1946; they collaborated on “Soul Corner,” the weekly supplement to Wee Pals. Morrie and Letha had one son, Morrie Jr; Letha died in 1994. Late in life, Turner’s companion was Karol Trachtenburg of Sacramento.
The Family Circus character of Morrie, a playmate of Billy and the only recurring black character in the strip, is based on Turner. Family Circus creator Bil Keane created the character in 1967 as a tribute to his close friend.
Throughout his career, Turner was showered with awards and community distinctions. For example, he received the Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Inter-Group Relations Award from the Anti-Defamation League of Bnai Brith. In 1971, he received the Alameda County (California) Education Association Layman’s Annual Award.