‘Escape from Black Bottom’ Anthology Chronicles World War II Veteran and Harvard Grad, Major Morris’ Life

Major Morris photographed at his Escondido home in 2002. He passed away June 11, 2016, at the age of 95. (Charlie Neuman/U-T File)
Major Morris photographed at his Escondido home in 2002. He passed away June 11, 2016, at the age of 95. (Charlie Neuman/U-T File)

During his long life, Major Morris was a photographer, a World War II veteran, a college professor, a Harvard University graduate and a champion of minority rights.

He was also a man who grew up in desperate poverty in Cincinnati’s all-black ghetto, dropped out of high school at 15 and endured great prejudice in the Army’s segregated “buffalo soldiers” unit.

Those extreme contrasts shaped the life and character of the Escondido resident, who died in June at age 95. Several years before he died, Morris started working on a book of his collected writings and photographs with his wife, Anne-Grethe.

That book, “Escape from Black Bottom,” has been posthumously published by Anne-Grethe this fall and will be offered for sale Saturday evening, Dec. 10, at Distinction Gallery in Escondido.

Anne-Grethe Morris said her late husband was a humble and dignified man who was proud of his achievements, particularly his Harvard master’s degree, but he didn’t talk often about the racism he endured throughout his life.

She said many of the stories he wrote or dictated for his book may surprise friends and colleagues who knew him only for the black-and-white photographs he exhibited at local galleries after they retired to North County in 1989.

In an essay in the book on desegregation, he wrote about a conversation he once had with an incredulous woman who couldn’t believe that, given the choice to live his life over, he’d want to be born black again.

“I sought to make her understand that, had I been born white, I would not be Major Morris. I’d be someone else. It has taken me my lifetime to overcome the negative feelings about me,” he wrote.

Morris was born in 1921 in Cincinnati’s segregated “Black Bottom,” where he was raised by his stern, but devoted grandmother Lillian, nicknamed “Muh.” He was named not for his father, who he never knew, but for his maternal grandfather, Major Morris, a train porter who was married and had another family.

To support her children and grandchildren alone, Muh made ends meet with a variety of jobs, including some that “skirted legality” like selling bootleg liquor from her parlor for 15 cents a dipper.

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Source: San Diego Union Tribune | Pam Kragen