Tributes poured in Monday for Morris "Morrie" Turner, the beloved Oakland-born cartoonist who broke racial barriers in the 1960s when he became the first African-American to have a syndicated comic strip -- the gently humored, ethnically diverse "Wee Pals," which still runs daily in the Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times.

The self-taught son of a Pullman porter and protégé of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, Turner died peacefully at a Sacramento hospital Saturday, David Bellard, a family friend said. He turned 90 in early December and had been working on his strip and other projects up until Friday, when he went to the hospital.

"He was a hero of mine," said Belva Davis, a pioneer herself in Bay Area journalism, who lived a few blocks from Turner when he had his home and studio in Berkeley and who was a guest at Turner's 90th birthday party in Sacramento.¿ She recalled how he paid tribute to her in his otherwise kid-focused strip in the weekly special section "Soul Corner," which profiles mostly accomplished African-Americans but breaks the color barrier in its honors as well.

"He always had a social message somewhere," Davis said.

When Turner created "Wee Pals" in 1965, the Tribune was one the first major newspapers to run it. At the time, characters of color rarely appeared in mainstream comic strips.


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"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 syndicates "Wee Pals."

The "Wee Pals" remain much the same as when they were created -- a group of friends who deal with racism, sexism and bullying. Turner's intention, his biography said, was "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."

Among the characters are several African-American kids, a neighborhood bigot, some "Girls Libbers" and, of course, Nipper, a boy, modeled on Turner himself, who typically wears a Civil War cap and has a dog named General Lee.

Cartoonist and illustrator Kaseem Greene credits Turner with inspiring his career.

"I can remember being a small kid, and my father and me reading 'Wee Pals' together," said Greene, who was born in Oakland in 1979. "You didn't see many characters of colors in a cartoon strip. He was someone who really influenced me when I was growing up."

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, Bellard said, 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 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. "He ran with that," Bellard said.

Even though the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum in the mid-1960s, few papers would run "Wee Pals." That changed with the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The tragic event helped "Wee Pals" gain nationwide acceptance. The strip began appearing in more than 100 newspapers across the United States.

In the decades since, Turner wrote and illustrated books for children and received numerous awards, including the prestigious Sparky Award from San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum and named for Schulz; the Anti-Defamation League's Humanitarian award; the Boys and Girls Club Image Award; the B'Nai Brith Humanitarian Award; and the California Educators Award. He once made an appearance on "Mister Rogers." He was a regular guest at schools, where he shared his gifts with the next generation of young artists, his companion, Karol Trachtenburg said.

His wife Letha died in 1994. He moved to West Sacramento several years ago to live with Trachtenburg. He is survived by his son, Morrie Jr., daughter-in-law, four grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Memorial services are pending.