‘Wee Pals’ creator who broke color barriers dies at the age of 90
By Dedrick D. Henry, Sr.
Cartoonist Morrie Turner, was the first African American comic strip artist to have his work published and syndicated in mainstream newspaper, died recently in Sacramento, Calif. Due to complications from kidney disease, Turner was 90 years old. Morris Nolten Turner was born in Oakland, Calif. on Dec. 11, 1923, the youngest of four children of James and Nora Spears Turner. His father, a Pullman porter, was a hardworking man who was rarely around. Turner’s mother was a nurse and she was the one who inspired him to fulfill his artistic talent and made him knowledgeable of Black Historians. During World War ll, Turner served as a staff clerk, journalist and an illustrator on the newspaper of the 332nd Fighter Group, the Tuskegee Airmen in the Army Air Corps.
After the Army, Turner worked as a clerk for the Oakland Police and sold his illustrations to national magazines and publications to help ends meet. Wee Pals was a mixed cast of characters from many different ethnic backgrounds and cultures known as the Rainbow Gang. There were white, Black, Asian, Hispanic and Jewish characters featured in his comics and even children with disabilities. Turner’s characters included a Black boy name Nipples; Oliver, a robust, caucasian nerd also known as Lil’ Ebert; Diz, a Black boy with shades and a dashiki; Ralph a white boy whose parents are racists but disregards them because he adores his friends.
During the 60’s friend and mentor Charles M. Schulz creator of ‘Peanuts’ suggested to Turner that he create some Black characters when Turner mentioned there being none in any newspaper or magazine publications. In the beginning, 1965, there were only a couple of the hundreds of newspapers to pick it up, but by 1968, there were five. Consequently, with the civil rights movement in full swing and the murder of Dr. King his early work appeared in the funny papers. A month after Dr. King’s death, 30 newspapers subscribed to Turner’s comic strips and with-in the coming months that number would increase to hundred subscribers.
Turner broke the color barrier twice; first being the first African American cartoonist to make it to the mainstream audience and second being the creator of the first syndicated strip with a culturally and racially diverse cast of characters.