Morrie Turner

Mark Twain Award to Morrie Turner

The California Press Foundation’s 2016 Mark Twain Award will be presented to the family of the late Morris “Morrie” Turner (1923-2014), the first African-American to have a syndicated comic strip — the ethnically diverse “Wee Pals.”

Turner, an Oakland native, created “Wee Pals” in 1965, and The Oakland Tribune was one of the first major newspapers to run it.

“Morrie was a pioneer with his ‘rainbow power’ message many decades before it became a household name,” said Rick Newcombe, founder of Creators, the company that syndicated “Wee Pals.”

The youngest of four children, Turner began drawing cartoons in the fifth grade, according to his biography at Creators.com. After attending McClymonds High in Oakland and graduating from Berkeley High, he served in World War II, where he was a mechanic for the famed Tuskegee Airmen and drew comic strips for military newspapers.

Upon his return to the Bay Area, Turner juggled a job as a clerk for the Oakland Police Department while freelancing cartoons to newspapers and magazines locally and in Chicago.

He admired Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” and mulled creating a black Charlie Brown after turning to cartooning full-time in 1964. At one point, Turner asked Schulz, who was then a friend, why he didn’t have any black kids in his comic strip, and Schulz told Turner to create his own.

At the time of Turner’s death at age 90, “Wee Pals” appeared in 40 newspapers and about a dozen websites.

The Mark Twain Award, presented since 2010, honors those from the writerly world: editors, writers, cartoonists whose journalistic work, either regional or statewide in nature, challenged the status quo. Previous winners have included Paul Conrad (Los Angeles Times) and Rex Babin (The Sacramento Bee).

The award will be presented on Friday, Dec. 2, the second day of the 139th Annual Cal Press Winter Meeting in San Francisco. All with an interest in the legacy and future of California newspapers are invited.

Registration is now open. Please register by Nov. 23. The Cal Press hotel room block closes on Nov. 9.

To learn more about the event, and Cal Press membership, please read the Cal Press newsletter.

Previously: Nan Tucker McEvoy to Newspaper Hall of Fame