Breaking the color barrier: Dorothy Morris paved the way

Dorothy Morris jokes that she used to be a “professional volunteer.”

Morris, 92, of Petaluma, spent decades volunteering, all while working as a bookkeeper, raising children, obtaining an associate degree in criminal justice at Santa Rosa Junior College and participating in countless church activities.

“I wanted to give back,” Morris said. And give back she did.

Between 1970 and 2014, Morris served with the California Senior Legislature, Petaluma’s Parks and Recreation Commission, the Petaluma Health Center and the Professional Black Women's Association; she also helped build the Lucchesi Senior Center.

Despite her lifelong commitment to community service, Morris wasn’t always treated with respect in Petaluma. As the city and the country undertake a new reckoning with racism, Morris reflected on her struggles as a North Bay trailblazer and on her efforts to ensure Black representation.

Morris was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1929. Her family eventually moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, expecting racism to be less severe there. They quickly learned that was not the case.

“It turns out the KKK was big there,” Morris said.

She married in 1945 and had her first daughter, Brenda, but divorced in 1950. Ten years later, when she was 30, Dorothy met her late husband, Herbert Morris, an enlisted man, as she traveled by train to visit relatives in Detroit.

“Mom thought Dad was handsome in his military uniform!” said Karen Morris, Dorothy’s second daughter, chiming in during a recent interview over Zoom.

“It was love at first sight,” Dorothy agreed. “I told him everything about my life on that train ride.”

Born in 1929, Herbert Morris was raised in Houston, Texas. He joined the U.S. Air Force and was part of the first integrated boot camp at Lackland AFB, in San Antonio.

“If Dad didn't join the military, he would’ve been stuck in the Jim Crow South with little opportunity,” their son, Samuel Morris said, joining the Zoom interview from London.

Before parting after that train ride, Dorothy gave Herbert her address.

“When I came home, there was a red, white and blue envelope waiting for me,” she said, describing a letter from Herbert, who was stationed at the time in Aviano, Italy. “We were pen pals for two years before we married in 1962.”

The Morrises were stationed in Michigan and then at Colorado Air Force Academy before Herbert transferred to Novato’s Hamilton Air Force Base in 1969, a move that brought them to Petaluma. While looking for a home, they were taken by a real estate agent to a few rundown properties near McKinley School. One disheveled house looked to have been quickly abandoned, a baby’s crib left behind.

“I was livid,” Morris remembered.

“The real estate agent steered us away from the west side of Petaluma because we were Black,” said Karen, noting that the real estate company is still in business.

So the couple drove around on their own and found a ranch-style home on the edge of east Petaluma. A month after moving in, Herbert, already a Korean War veteran, was deployed to Vietnam. By then the Morris family was already establishing itself as a vital part of its new community.

“We looked out for one another in the neighborhood,” Dorothy Morris recalled, mentioning that Herbert had started a neighborhood watch group. “If an ambulance came to a house, we knocked on the door to make sure people were OK.”

Still, Morris encountered racism in her daily life.

“My white friend didn’t believe me when I told her what happened when I went shopping,” she said of the way she is still often treated with suspicion, describing one recent event. “So, we went together to a local store. I told her, ‘You go that way and I’ll go this way. Watch what happens.’” Soon, an employee began following Dorothy around the store until she made a purchase at the cash register. “Finally, my friend believed me,” she said.

Such experiences made Dorothy a steady advocate for Black representation, her kids point out, even if she wasn’t one to march in the streets.

“My mom broke many color barriers,” Karen Morris said. “She was almost always the first Black person in a workplace.”

When a local organization was newly integrating, Morris was often the first Black resident to sign up. Along the way, she strategically paved a path for others.

“If my mother left a committee or a volunteer position, she made sure that another Black person took her place,” Samuel said. “It was important to her that Black people were represented in city halls and county offices.”

Karen Morris moved back to her childhood home in Petaluma to care for her mother in 2016, after Herbert died and Dorothy lost most of her eyesight. Dorothy also suffered her third heart attack and had open-heart surgery.

“Our mother is a bionic woman,” Karen said.

In addition to Karen’s caregiving, Samuel calls from England at least three times a week.

“My family keeps me going,” Dorothy Morris said.

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