Escondidan a champion of black progress
During his 95 years on Earth, Major Morris was a chronicler, educator and active participant in how life improved for black Americans in the 20th century.
Morris, who died June 11 at his Escondido home, grew up in dire poverty in Cincinnati’s “Black Bottom” and served during World War II in the last all-black mounted cavalry unit known as the “buffalo soldiers.” As a photographer in the 1960s, he captured scenes of inner-city life and protest marches. And after the Civil Rights era, he earned a master’s degree from Harvard University and became an educator, training teachers in diversity and cultural sensitivity and working as a university affirmative action officer.
In Escondido — where Morris and his wife of 36 years, Anne-Grethe, moved in 1997 — he was best known for his photography. His black-and-white 1960s-era images were frequently featured at area art galleries, including Escondido’s Distinction Gallery, where director Melissa Walker said Morris leaves a dual legacy.
“He had an incredible eye for composition when he was actively shooting during the Civil Rights movement,” Walker said. “But his legacy is more than just his work. He loved people and he had a kind, warm, genuine personality that everyone loved.”
Morris grew up in the Depression, where he once told a U-T reporter that his resourceful grandmother kept the family fed by “selling bootleg liquor from her parlor at 15 cents a dipper” and taught him the values of hard work and self-sufficiency. After Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, he tried to enlist in the Army, but there were quotas for how many blacks would be accepted each year.
Instead, he was drafted in 1942 into the Army’s 2nd Cavalry Division at Fort Clark, Texas. It was the Army’s last mounted division and was soon absorbed into the 92nd Infantry Division, the so-called “Buffalo Division.” The buffalo name — said to have been coined by Indian tribes who likened the soldier’s curly hair to that of bison — was first given to segregated black peacetime Army regiments in 1866 Kansas. Later it was used to describe all segregated black units.
Morris’ division was sent to the Po Valley in Northern Italy in 1943. It became one of just two black divisions to see combat in World War II. Morris said he dreamed of being a pilot in the Army Air Corps, but as a high school dropout, his application was rejected.
“It was the natural state of being in those days” Morris said in 2008 about life in the segregated ranks. “The only problem we had was most of our commanding officers were white, and you got the feeling they didn’t want to be there. They felt like they were being punished.”
After the war, Morris settled in Boston and used the G.I. bill to go to college. Meanwhile, he worked his way up to a research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While at MIT, the self-trained photographer started taking freelance pictures for the university, the Boston Globe and Fairchild Publications, which served many fashion magazines. Then he began chronicling student life as a full-time photographer for the schools in Newton, Mass. His striking, candid photos of young, smiling children at play and study were the focus of several major exhibitions. Morris said his favorite images were those of young children with hope in their eyes.
“In my photographic experience I have always been drawn to capturing images of what life was for me as I groped my way through an underprivileged youthful existence ... I see the possibilities for growth, for the excitement of learning for the formation of dreams that will take underprivileged children up and out into productive life. What I see is the dreams to be nurtured,” he said.
In the 1970s, he shelved his camera and went to Harvard. Then he transitioned into education, working as a lecturer and administrator to improve outcomes for minority students at school districts in the Northeastern U.S. and at Tufts University, Southeastern Massachusetts University and Portland State University. He and his wife — they met at Boston’s bicentennial celebration in 1976 — retired to North County in 1989.
Walker said she met Morris 13 years ago when he showed up at her newly opened downtown gallery and volunteered for a part-time job. He was so spry and youthful, she had no idea he was 82.
“Not many people like Major exist,” she said. “He genuinely cared about people. When he talked to you, he was never in a rush. He would look you in the eye and ask you about your day.”
Walker set up a permanent wall of Morris’ work in Distinction’s small ArtHatch gallery space, and in December 2011 she opened “Urbana,” an exhibit of 23 rarely-seen black-and-white Morris photos. She helped him market his photo book “Nurture Their Dreams” and was trying to arrange a retrospective of his work at a local museum when he died. His work can also be seen at online at majormorris.net.
Anne-Grethe said her husband was seriously injured in a fall several months ago and had just returned home after a long rehabilitation when he passed away earlier this month. He was preceded in death by his daughter, Lia Morris, in 2008. He will be buried on Saturday in a family plot in Cincinnati. Locally, a celebration of life is planned at 3:30 p.m. July 10 at Distinction Gallery, 317 E. Grand Ave., Escondido. Reservations are requested at (760) 707-2770.
Anne-Grethe said she hopes her husband is remembered for his positivity and kindness to others.
“He was a wonderful storyteller and always had a smile and a twinkle in his eyes while talking to others,” she said.