A couple of years ago, I was visiting the Cartoon Museum in San Francisco with my kids and noticed this small, framed artwork. A group of multiracial kids, speaks about race issues in comic terms. It was sweet and also thought-provoking. It reminded me of the issues that were in the air, growing up as a multiracial child in the 70s. I took a picture with my phone, while a small memory fluttered just on the periphery.
Two weeks ago, I was doing research at the Oakland African-American Museum for a documentary I’m working on about West Oakland land use. The museum is an incredible repository of oral histories, documents, and artifacts. Like most Oakland Libraries, it’s underfunded but still has an incredible staff. With their help, I came across another comic and a reference to Morrie Turner and realized that Wee Pals had Oakland Roots. The dots started to connect, past to present.
Morrie Turner was born in Oakland in 1923, the fourth son of a Pullman Porter, James Turner, and a nurse, Nora Turner. Of course, both of those jobs had a certain degree of activism to them. In 1926, the first hospital open to African-Americans was opened in Oakland. Turner’s mother probably worked there at some point, and may have even trained there as all other Oakland hospitals were closed to Blacks in those days. After years of discrimination, the Pullman Porters were the first African-Americans to sign a union agreement with a major US company in 1925.
Turner grew up attending Oakland and Berkeley schools, drawing all the while. What began as a childhood hobby only grew when he entered the military. While serving in WWII, he began drawing cartoon strips for military papers. During the Vietnam War he was asked to visit hospitals and draw caricatures of the patients to help keep their spirits up.
After his military service, he became friends with Charles Schultz, the creator of the Peanuts characters. Turner had an idea for a comic strip based on his experiences growing up in Oakland: a strip with kids of different races and even kids with disabilities. Shultz encouraged Turner and also helped him to make some key connections.
Wee Pals appeared in 1965. It was the first nationally-syndicated comic strip with Black author in the funny pages. Back in the days when most families got a thick brick of newsprint on their doorstep each Sunday, my brother and I, like many kids, would pull out the comics. Forget the coupons! Forget the news! We wanted art and laughter. Wee Pals inspired a whole generation of artists like my brother and me. It showed diverse people like us that we could have a majority audience, while still speaking with a minority voice, about issues that were important to us.
There would be no Aaron McGruder and Boondocks without Morrie Turner. Keith Knight, author/illustrator of The K Chronicles, also credits him. Just the fact that Turner succeeded opened doors for others. However, he was also known for supporting other artists over the years. Turner answered fan questions, mentored artists, and, last Thursday, answered a message I had sent to him. I had asked him if we could talk about my documentary and if he might be willing to share some West Oakland history on camera.
I knew it was a long shot, trying to contact someone so famous. They often don’t respond. I was surprised to see his answer pop up in quickly in my Facebook messages “Hello Ms. Smith-Dahl… I have been having some medical issues, so apologize for the delayed response. I will be calling you soon. Thank you, and I probably will have stories to share. Keep the Faith, Morrie”
He was known for that catchphrase, “Keep the Faith.” When I got the call yesterday that Mr. Turner had passed away, I found a couple tears on my cheek. The dots have connected in the most amazing way, as they always do when we tell stories with art. Today I discovered that Mr. Turner and I share the same birthday (December 11). It also turns out he was also one of the founders of the Oakland African-American Museum.
Rest in power, Mr. Turner. History and inspiration is all around us. Local treasures like you keep me faithful. Thank you.
Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland. See our guidelines.