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Morris, James Brad, Sr.
(October 15, 1890–December 30, 1977)

–soldier, lawyer, and journalist—was born in Covington, Georgia, a small town east of Atlanta. As a young boy, he moved to Atlanta with his parents, William and Salemma Morris, both of whom had been born into slavery. William left the family shortly after the move, so Morris grew up with his mother and two brothers, Bill and Clyde. In his early teens, Morris witnessed the lynching of a friend, and when the Ku Klux Klan threatened him, his mother sent him to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Baltimore. He graduated from Hampton Institute in 1912 and the Howard University School of Law in 1915.

    Inspired by Senator William E. Borah's speech about the opportunities for black attorneys out West, Morris started working his way west on the railroad after graduation. George H. Woodson, a Virginia native, 25th Infantry veteran, and Des Moines attorney, invited Morris to join him, which Morris did in 1916. A year later Morris enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the black officers Fort Des Moines Officer Training Camp and earned a commission as a second lieutenant. After training African American enlisted men at Camp Dodge and marrying his Howard sweetheart, Georgine Crowe, Morris went to France in 1918 with the Third Battalion, 92nd Division, 366th Infantry. He suffered a bad leg wound at Metz, which delayed his return to the United States until July 1919. (His son, James Brad Morris Jr., had been born five months earlier.) Woodson and S. Joe Brown welcomed Morris back to their law firm. Three years later he seized the opportunity to purchase the Iowa Bystander. Morris fulfilled its motto, "Fear God, tell the truth, and make money," until he sold the paper in 1972.

    For 50 years, Morris was one of the leading African Americans in Iowa. His editorial voice from the state capital reached into black communities across the state, linking large and small together in a weekly record of national, state, and local news; African American achievement; and protest. The militant voice of attorney Charles P. Howard Sr. (a fellow graduate of the Fort Des Moines Officer Training Camp) attracted readers with his column, "The Observer."In 1937, at the depth of the Great Depression, Morris sold the paper, but a year later it was back in his hands, and, with the support of Des Moines Register editor Harvey Ingham, he launched a successful effort to revive it.

    With the assistance of his brother Clyde and his wife, Georgine, Morris was able to sustain the Bystander for another 35 years, overcoming rivals such as Howard's Observer (1939-1949). Despite his lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party, his success continued even after African Americans began to gravitate to the Democratic Party in the 1930s. In 1940 he was a cofounder of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, the first national black media network. Summing up his journalist career in a June 17, 1971, farewell editorial, Morris noted, "Certainly a business that has operated for 77 years has some merit, has earned a place in the hearts of people, and produced some satisfaction to those who have, in any way, had a part in its niche in the community."One of his grandsons still contributes a weekly column to the Bystander.

    Morris also built a successful legal practice. In 1925 he was one of the cofounders of the National Bar Association in Des Moines, which was formed because the American Bar Association excluded blacks. He passed on his practice to his son, Brad, after Brad graduated from the State University of Iowa College of Law. Two of his grandsons maintain the Morris & Morris law firm.

    James Morris's success in journalism and law came from his ambition and activism. Both he and Georgine were active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and they were instrumental in establishing the state conference in 1940. Both were also active in their church–Corinthian Baptist, then St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal, and finally St. Paul's Episcopal—and the Iowa Republican Party, which Morris cochaired and served as delegate to the national convention in 1964. Most of all, he headed a successful family and passed on a name with a positive reputation to his son, Brad, and daughter, Jean. That legacy of honor and tradition in business, journalism, and law earned him recognition from the Des Moines Register as one of "The 10 Most Influential Black Iowans of the 20th Century."
Sources The Morris Family Papers are at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. Obituaries appeared in the Des Moines Tribune, 12/30/1977; Des Moines Register, 1/3/1978; and Iowa Bystander, 1/5/1978. For more on Morris, see Robert V. Morris, Tradition and Valor (1999); and Bill Silag et al., eds., Outside In: African-American History in Iowa, 1838–2000 (2001), chaps. 5, 11, and 12.
Contributor: Hal S. Chase