Morrie Turner, The First Nationally Syndicated African-American Cartoonist, Passes Away
Morris “Morrie” Turner passed away on Saturday. In 1965, Turner became the first African-American cartoonist to have a nationally syndicated comic strip when he created Wee Pals, which itself was the first strip syndicated in the United States to feature an ethnically diverse cast.
Turner was born and raised in Oakland, California in 1923. He served in World War II, during which he illustrated strips for military newspapers. Years later, Turner was one of six cartoonists asked by the National Cartoonist Society to go to Vietnam, where he spent a month both on the front lines and in hospitals, drawing over 3,000 caricatures of service people. In the early 1960s, Turner began questioning why there were no minority characters in cartoons. At the suggestion of Charles Schulz — whom he called his mentor — and comedian and social activist Dick Gregory, Turner went on to create Wee Pals. Launching at a time when convincing a newspaper to run a strip featuring minority characters was extremely difficult, Wee Pals initially only appeared in five publications. Three years later, following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the strip would receive more widespread recognition. Three months after King’s death, Wee Pals was appearing in over 100 newspapers nationwide.
Throughout his career, Turner received several awards for his work, including the Anti-Defamation League’s Humanitarian award, the “Sparky Award,” named in honor of his mentor Schulz, the Milton Caniff Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award, among others.
Turner never retired from cartooning, illustrating new Wee Pals strips even as his health declined, while also regularly visiting schools to offer art lessons to children. This bio page of Turner sums up his goal with Wee Pals rather succinctly: “It was Morrie’s intention to portray a world without prejudice, a world in which people’s differences — race, religion, gender, and physical and mental ability — are cherished, not scorned.” Wee Pals was a charming strip with a diverse cast, but it didn’t go out of its way to point out its diversity. Turner created a strip that treated cultural diversity exactly how it should be treated: like it is a perfectly normal thing.
Morrie Turner was 90 years old.