Jeanne and Charles Morris Named 2017 History Makers Honorees
The story of how Jeanne and Charles Morris met “usually gets a smile,” according to Charles. The two met as college students working at a summer resort on Squam Lake in New Hampshire. Each September for two years, they went their separate ways - Jeanne returned to Spelman College in Atlanta, GA and Charles to Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, NC. They “kept in touch” as they finished undergraduate degrees – a B.S. in Mathematics for Charles and a B.A. in Music Education for Jeanne. They married in 1957 and lived for a year in North Carolina before moving to Champaign-Urbana when Charles was awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship at the University of Illinois.
It was there that Jeanne and Charles’ journey as History Makers set its course. Arriving in Champaign-Urbana, the couple avoided a housing discrimination event because a block of apartments to house all the fellows had been acquired by the NSF Institute Director. Charles feels they were fortunate because “We didn’t have to face the problem of looking for housing.” Later, Charles and Jeanne became active in a successful open housing campaign and were able to rent a house in Urbana their last year there. In the summer of 1966, Charles received a Ph.D. in Mathematics and Jeanne a Masters degree in Education. Charles accepted a position at ISU and the Morris family, including children David and Lyn, moved to Normal. In the ensuing years, the family has grown by three grandsons, one granddaughter, and great-granddaughter Cameron Jeanne Morris.
The Morrises were not surprised that acquiring suitable housing was an immediate problem in their new town. Richard Watts, pastor of Normal’s First Presbyterian Church whom they knew at McKinley Church in Champaign, proactively alerted Bob Lenz [a local attorney] anticipating that the Morrises would need legal assistance. Charles recalled, “We were denied access to several houses listed for sale but found one we liked on Wilmette Drive.” Jeanne recalls that one “tale” was that the owner of this house lived out-of-town and had no interest in retaining the property. Charles recalled, “The situation had its sad and angry moments. It was rumored that we had been hired by the NAACP to purchase a house and “run the neighborhood down,” Jeanne added. “Fortunately, there were more families in the neighborhood supportive of open housing than those opposing. We bought the house.” “During those early years, we were lucky to be supported by equal opportunity advocates like Jim and Gwen Pruyne and Ralph and Ellen Smith,” Charles said. In the early 1970’s Jeanne and Charles collaborated with the Lenzes, Pohlmanns and Plummers to address the lack of off-campus housing available to African American students. Charles explained. “Our group bought houses near campus to rent to African American students.”
Minority students and faculty had a very small presence on campus. In his first year, Charles was one of three African American ISU teaching faculty. As his career evolved at ISU, Charles directed NSF-funded programs in Mathematics, served as the Interim Director of the High Potential Students Program and was elected first Chairperson of the ISU Academic Senate. He served as Secretary of the University, Vice President for Administrative Services and retired from the position of Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs with the Illinois Board of Regents, while retaining faculty status with ISU and associate-status with the Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology and the Center for the Study of Education Policy.
After graduating from Spelman, Jeanne accepted a position as a music teacher in Florida in a school that enrolled many children of migrant workers,” she explained. “I thought music was the “cream on the top” and that the children really needed more focus on reading and writing. The year after we moved to Illinois, I pursued and earned a Masters in Education.” In the Morrises third year in Normal, Jeanne taught four-year-olds at Playmates Nursery School at First Presbyterian Church where they have been members since their arrival in Normal.
Jeanne’s interest in early childhood education came at a time the federal government had an interest in funding Head Start, a school readiness program for low-income children. She returned to the University of Illinois and was a Graduate Assistant involved in the development of protocols for the Head Start program. She completed her Ed. D. in 1979 while juggling family, community and work, driving back and forth in a Ford Pinto. She laughed when she recounted that, years after, her son informed her that she shouldn’t have been driving that car. “No one told me!”
Jeanne was on the ISU faculty for twenty-six years in the Departments of Elementary Education and Curriculum and Instruction, including a three-year appointment at Metcalf Laboratory School when she received an ISU Grant to initiate an on-campus Head Start Program and was also a kindergarten teacher. At times, her roles as an educator and an activist naturally overlapped. One instance in particular stands out in her mind. “I’m proud of this,” she said. “While on sabbatical I chose to be a classroom assistant to my graduate students who were teachers at Bent and Sheridan schools and in Pekin, Illinois which had a sundown law.” Charles explained that the sundown law meant “African Americans weren’t wanted in Pekin—to put it kindly—after sunset.” Jeanne commented that some of the children would look at me and want to touch me. I let them. That’s what education is all about.”
Her interest in childhood education also helped shape her involvement with community organizations. Jeanne is a member of the Director Emeritus Group of the Baby Fold, having joined the Board in 1975. She has also worked with numerous groups to develop both early childhood and multicultural curricula. She was a Professor and Assistant Department Chair when she retired.
Jeanne and Charles have been active volunteers in numerous organizations at local, state, regional and
national levels. Among them are: the Baby Fold, Heartland Head Start, the Children’s Foundation, the
United Campus Christian Foundation, the YMCA, Bloomington-Normal Kiwanis, Western Avenue
Community Center, Habitat for Humanity, the Town of Normal 125th Anniversary committee, the McLean
County Historical Society, the League of Women Voters, the Illinois Committee on Black Concerns in
Higher Education, Central Illinois Chapter of SCORE, the Illinois State Board of Education Bias Review
Committee, the American Council on Education Committee on Campus Trends, and the U. S. Dept. of
Agriculture Citizen’s Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunity.
They are very proud of the SIMAST program Charles directed at Metcalf Laboratory School for five summers after retirement and the Dr. Charles Morris Annual STEM Fair for Underrepresented Students created in 2014. The recognition and awards Jeanne and Charles have received are as numerous, diverse and multilevel as their work in the community. Charles was awarded the Town of Normal Dr. Martin L. King Jr. Adult Human Relations Award in 1979 and Jeanne in 2007. They were inducted into the African American Hall of Fame Museum, one of several partners of the Peoria Riverfront Museum, in 2011. They have established an Educational Equity Endowment (EEE) Fund with the ISU Foundation.