Morris Nolten Turner was born on December 11, 1923 in Oakland, California; he was the youngest of four children. His parents, James and Nora Spears Turner, were devout Christians. Highly active in rearing their children, a principle that Morris would hold dear throughout his long life was “Keeping the Faith”. His mother was a homemaker and worked as a nurse; his father worked as a Pullman porter who often was away.
From an early age, Morrie, as he was called, was connected with newspapers. His father, as a Pullman porter, was a member of a group of Black men who, for years, operated as a covert delivery network of Black newspaper. These papers included the Chicago Defender, the New York Amsterdam News, and the Pittsburgh Courier. Additionally, his brothers also sold Black newspapers.
A talented young child, Morrie began sketching caricatures when he was in the fifth grade at Cole Elementary. According to journalist Paul Vitello in his 2010 memorial tribute to Turner in The New York Times, it was his mother who was incredibly encouraging of “… his artistic talent and instilling in him a reverence for a pantheon of Black historical figures.”
His art, including creating cartoons, made him highly popular with others. Turner enjoyed cartoons, such as Bootsie, featured in newspapers. He especially admired the work of Oliver “Ollie” Harrington, an African-American who was featured in the New York Amsterdam News. Turner was incredibly impressed by Harrington and by the time he was a teen, he began collecting his work and copying Harington’s style.
In “Morrie Turner: To Say the Name is Both Eulogy and Tribute”, written by R.C. Harvey for The Comic Journal, the journalist reported an account of when Turner wrote Milton Caniff. Caniff, a White, grandmaster cartoonist who is best known for Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates, sent to Turner a typed, six-page response. In his letter, Caniff included tips and concepts regarding illustration and storytelling. Harvey shared the impact of Caniff on Turner, relaying, “It changed my whole life … The fact that he took the time to share all with a kid, a stranger. Didn’t impress me all that much at the time, but it impresses the hell out of me now.” The generosity of Caniff surely influenced the magnanimity of Morrie Turner, who often shared his wisdom and expertise with aspiring cartoonists, especially African-American artists.