Last weekend we celebrated “Morrie Turner Day” at Children’s Fairyland. We were beyond proud to honor an Oaklander who for many decades has been an outspoken champion for all kids, in all of their rainbow shades.
Morris Turner, born in 1923 to a Pullman porter father and a devoutly Christian mother, grew up in West Oakland and attended McClymonds High School. He began drawing cartoons in the fifth grade. Years later, when he began questioning why there were no minorities in newspaper comics, his mentor Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, suggested he draw his own.
And so, in 1965, he created the Wee Pals comic strip. He wanted to portray a world without prejudice, a world in which kids’ differences — race, religion, gender, and physical and mental ability — were celebrated, not scorned.
Back then, bringing black characters to the comic pages was not easy. Wee Pals was the first nationally-syndicated comic strip to feature an ethnically diverse cast, but in the beginning, only five major newspapers published the strip. It was not until 1968, the year of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, that Wee Pals achieved more widespread acceptance. Within three months of King’s death, the strip was appearing in more than 100 newspapers nationwide, including the Oakland Tribune. Morrie became the first nationally-syndicated African-American cartoonist; his strip continues to this day.
Native Oaklander Ron Zeno, a Children’s Fairyland board member and our beloved Santa Claus, is convinced that Wee Pals was the reason he learned to read.
“One day a comic appeared with characters that looked like me!” Ron recalls. He was motivated to follow the lives of African-American characters Nipper, Randy, Diz and their friends, who came in different colors, ethnicities and religions — and even in wheelchairs. When Ron was 60, he finally met the artist. “It was like a baseball fan meeting Babe Ruth,” Ron says.
Ron says that Morrie’s underlying message — that we can all get along by resolving our differences in a positive way — helped make him the person he is today. “And he does it all in just four panels, man!” he says with real admiration.
It was Ron’s idea to have a “Morrie Turner Day” at Fairyland. In addition to Morrie, we invited artist Jerry Williams, Hip Hop indie comic creator Adrian “Age” Scott, comic book artist Jaimel Hemphill, and Andrew Farago, the curator of the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco. Not even rain could keep away the crowd of fans who wanted to pay tribute to a man who had changed many of their lives.
Jerry Williams recalled that Morrie was the only black artist who came to his school in West Oakland. Jerry was inspired by Morrie’s message that “art is open to anyone.” Today, Jerry’s artwork is sold around the world.
Morrie also visited Jaimel Hemphill’s Oakland elementary school. “When I was 8 years old, I loved comics,” says Jaimel. “But it never occurred to me that I could create what I loved, until I met Mr. Turner.” Soon he was drawing instead of doing homework. “I got in a lot of trouble,” he says, “but now I can support my daughter by what I do.” He thanked Morrie “for opening my eyes.”
Age Scott created the first and longest-running hip hop comic. “And it all started with Mr. Turner,” he said. “I love this man,” he added, with tears in his eyes. He then got the audience clapping along as he dedicated a rap to Morrie: “If not for him, I don’t think I’d be here.” He later offered to volunteer at Fairyland to teach kids how to draw. “I want to do that for the kids, too,” he says.
And then Morrie shared some stories: about his close professional relationship with Charles Schulz; about how his integrated school provided the cast of diverse characters he was later to draw (and draw on), about his high school principal, who framed a drawing made by Morrie, giving him the encouragement he needed to draw more; about Mister Rogers, “the most gracious and beautiful guy I even worked with.”
Morrie also told a story about Family Circus cartoonist Bil Keane, whom he befriended on a 1969 trip to Vietnam. Along the way, “someone stole my clothes, and Bill shared his.”
The audience included many kids, who listened attentively to the heartfelt tribute.
To any of them considering a career in cartooning, the nearly 90-year-old master offered this advice: “Keep your pen wet,” he said.