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Jeanne and Charles Morris

The story of how Jeanne and Charles Morris met “usually gets a smile,” according to Charles. Jeanne and Charles Morris grew up in entirely different states, but met in college while working at a camp on Squam Lake in Holderness, New Hampshire. Although they then went their separate ways—Jeanne back to Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and Charles back to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina—the two kept in touch as they finished up their undergraduate degrees. After Charles received his B.S. in Mathematics and Jeanne received her B.A. in music education, the two married in 1957 and lived for a year in North Carolina before moving to Urbana-Champaign.

The two moved to Urbana-Champaign when Charles received a National Science Foundation Institute Fellowship. Almost immediately, Jeanne and Charles faced some challenges in their new town because of their race. “When we arrived at the University of Illinois for Charles’ National Science Foundation fellowship, we could not live on the campus,” Jeanne explained. “African Americans could not live on the campus at the time. So when the National Science Foundation leader for the group notified the National Science Foundation, they [acquired] a block of housing and put all of their institute fellows in there.”

Charles feels that they were lucky to have not faced a greater challenge, and attributed this to the support they received from the director of the program. “We didn’t have to face the problem of looking for housing and not finding any,” Charles said. “The director was a Jewish man who was very aware of, and sensitive to, those issues.”

When Jeanne and Charles moved to Bloomington-Normal in 1966, they faced more housing problems. “At the time the community did not have what you would call ‘open housing’,” Charles pointed out. “But we found a suitable place to move with help from some friends in the community.” One of those friends, Reverend Richard Watts of the First Presbyterian Church in Normal, knew Jeanne and Charles from their time in Urbana-Champaign and proactively addressed the situation when he learned they would be moving.

Jeanne still remembers Rev. Watts’ help and how he introduced them to what would become one of their best friends in the community. “He knew we were coming, he knew we’d have trouble, so he alerted Bob Lenz [a local attorney] that we would probably need a lawyer to find housing.”

Access to housing for African Americans remained an issue for some years to come, but Jeanne and Charles faced it head-on. During their first few years in Bloomington-Normal, they rented a house on Wilmette Drive in Normal. “When we first came there were people who weren’t very happy abut us moving there and made it known,” Charles recalled.

“Well, there was a rumor that we were hired by the NAACP to come in and live in the house and run the neighborhood down,” Jeanne added. “It was not life threatening, but there was anger.”

Jeanne and Charles helped African American students in the community address the housing situation, as well. “For ISU, a lot of student housing was in the community. That was open and available to white students, but there weren’t houses in Normal that African American students could live in,” Charles explained. Starting in the early 1970s, “We were part of a group, with Bob Lenz, that purchased houses in Normal near the campus and rented to African American students.”

Charles and Jeanne took up the mantle of minority rights on campus at a time when minority students and faculty still had a very small presence on campus. “When I came in 1966, I was one of three African American faculty/staff. It was a long time before the real changes came with respect to faculty and staff at ISU. And with respect to students, as well,” Charles said. “There weren’t that many minority—certainly not many African American—students in those years. We all said among ourselves that you could walk for days around the ISU campus and not see another African American student or faculty member.”

This began to change later in Charles’ long career at ISU. He started at Illinois State as an Associate Professor of Mathematics. It was in 1973, when Charles was Secretary of Illinois State University, that Affirmative Action was introduced on campus. In later years, Charles would go on to become the Vice President of Administrative Services at Illinois State University and Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs with the Illinois Board of Regents.

Beyond their involvement on improving the campus experience for minorities, Jeanne and Charles were active in many organizations whose aim was to improve the quality of life for minorities in the community. These included the Council for Minority Economic Resources, the Normal Human Relations Commission, and the Minority Voters Coalition. As part of this work, Jeanne and Charles often worked with 2015 History Maker and fellow activist Merlin Kennedy.

But Charles is firm on the point that, while he was involved in many high-profile groups, Jeanne had an equally strong impact on the community. “I want to say, strongly, that it was I out there getting his picture taken doing various activities, but Jeanne was on the home front and out there supporting things like open occupancy,” he pointed out.

Jeanne did indeed have a strong impact on the community, both as an activist and as an educator. Before she married Charles and moved to Illinois, she earned her B.A. in music education and taught for four years in Florida, a position that encouraged her to continue her own education. “It was a school that predominantly enrolled migrant workers’ children,” she explained. “I though music was the cream on the top—they really needed to know how to read and write, and then they can enjoy music. So the year after we married and moved to Illinois, I went back and got a Masters in education.”

Her interest in early childhood education came at a time that the government was taking an interest in funding Head Start, a school readiness program for low-income children. While pursuing her education at the University of Illinois, Jeanne worked as a lead graduate assistant as part of the protocol development for the Head Start program. Jeanne received her Ed. D. form the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in 1979 while juggling family, community and work. In order to complete her doctorate, she drove back and forth between Bloomington and Urbana-Champaign in a Ford Pinto. She laughed when she recounted that, years after the fact, her son informed her that she “shouldn’t have been driving that. No one told me!”

Jeanne worked for many years at Illinois State University. Starting at the Metcalf Laboratory School while working on her doctorate, she eventually joined the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and became the Director of the Early Childhood Education program.

At times, her roles as an educator and an activist naturally overlapped. One instance in particular stands out in her mind. “I’m proud if this,” she said. “I had a sabbatical, and Pekin, Illinois had a sundown law.” As Charles explained the sundown law: “African Americans weren’t wanted in Pekin—to put it kindly—after sunset.” At the time, Jeanne had some graduate students teaching in Pekin’s school system. “So I managed to go over there. They didn’t have any non-whites in the community at the time, and these kids would look at me, want to touch me. That’s what education is all about.” She laughed as she recalled one boy in particular. “[He] was looking at me and I said, ‘You know, my legs are that color, too!’”

Jeanne’s interest in childhood education also helped shape her involvement with community organizations. Jeanne is Director Emeritus with the Baby Fold, having first joined the board of the Baby Fold in 1975. She has also worked with numerous local, state and national groups to develop both early childhood and multiethnic curricula.

Together, Jeanne and Charles have been active in numerous organizations: the First Presbyterian Church, the Baby Fold, Heartland Head Start, the Children’s Foundation, the United Campus Christian Foundation, The YMCA, Bloomington-Normal Kiwanis, the Western Avenue Community Center, the Town of Normal 125th Anniversary committee, the McLean County Historical Society, the League of Women Voters, and more.

The recognition and awards Jeanne and Charles have received are as numerous and diverse as their work in the community. One that Charles is most proud of is the Dr. Charles Morris Annual STEM Fair for Underrepresented Students created in 2014 by the ISU STEM departments, the University College and Dean of Students’ Office. In 2007, Jeanne received the Adult Human Relations Award at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Luncheon.

While living here, Jeanne and Charles raised a son and a daughter and now have three grandsons, one granddaughter, and one great-granddaughter.

Reflecting on their time in Bloomington-Normal, Charles said, “Living in Bloomington-Normal has been good for us. We met some standard problems of minorities moving into midwestern communities when we came—and there were people who were very unhappy about that—but by and large the overall community has been very progressive. A good example of that is the organization called Not In Our Town. …It’s been a reasonable community to raise children, and they’re having successful levels which would not have been possible when we came.”

Written By

Lauren Lacy

Lauren Lacy

Lauren Lacy is Director of Development at the McLean County Museum of History

Posted in Museum News Event Spotlight

April 11th, 2017