When Barbara Morris was a little girl, her family would take yearly trips to the Deep South to visit relatives.
It was the 1950s. They were black.
She didn’t understand the stories she was hearing about what white people were doing to black people. She didn’t understand why her grandmother was so upset and scared when a 7-year-old Barbara sprinted into a bathroom designated for white people.
She didn’t understand why there would be a bathroom designated for white people.
“I remember one time when we were in Montgomery, I went downtown to look in the stores with my cousins. There was a water fountain, but it was a white water fountain. I was thirsty — it was a hot day. And I wanted to get a drink and they said, ‘No, no. Don’t drink out of that fountain.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s the matter?’ I didn’t understand. So they took me in the store and they brought me a pop. I thought, well, that was a better treat to get some pop,” she said, chuckling. “It was a while before I really realized what was happening, but I could never understand why it was happening.”
Today, Morris runs a tour company focusing on black history. She organizes days-long coach trips across the nation, some following the Underground Railroad to Canada, others taking people through the monuments and museums of D.C., others to Detroit’s Motown Records, along the Buffalo Soldiers’ path in Oklahoma or to the Maryland slave port where the man who inspired Kunta Kinte was sold.
And, of course, the former school speech therapist has a bus tour through Chicago.
“I feel like I’m still teaching,” she said. “I love the fact I am enlightening people about my heritage.”
Her house in Auburn Gresham is lined with photographs of family history and black history, shots of uncles and cousins framed next to images of Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm. She gleams with pride at her family tree photo collage running from pictures of her grandkids to info on her great great great great great grandparents.
Her grandfather came up to Chicago during the Great Migration, a turpentine tapper down in Mississippi who came up to find work.
“The steel mill was the saving grace for my family,” she said, listing off the family members, including her father and all her uncles, who would find work there. “Even some of the grandchildren worked in the steel mill for a minute.”
Her father was a colonel in the National Guard, a WWII and Korean War veteran recalled to Fort Sheridan as a survival assistance officer during Vietnam.
“My dad held high standards for all of us. There was no such thing as red on your course book,” she said, referring to the color that indicated a failing grade.
One of her grandfathers bought property. Her father rose in the National Guard and became a bus driver in civilian life. Her uncle was a Tuskeegee Airman who became a police officer, the latter a job that still runs in the family.
Barbara became a speech therapist, a story we heard a bit about last week.
Barbara decided that — and we’re in the 1970s by now — as long as the her students had to practice speech, they might as well practice speeches by Frederick Douglass. As long as she had them reading poems, they might as well be from Harlem Renaissance writers.
“I got known as the dingbat teacher that did not know it was not Black History Month,” she said, launching into a loving impression of her former students. “‘Oh man, why we gotta do all this black history? It ain’t Black History Month. What’s up with this?’”
Heavily involved in Brownies and her grandson’s Cub Scouts troop, she eventually was asked to put together routes focusing on black history for the groups’ yearly trips.
“Every chance I got to work with children — especially African-American young children — I utilized that to try to enlighten them about the tremendous heritage that we have,” she said.
She later started pitching her trips, one of which followed the Underground Railroad up to Canada, to adults. Chicago tours started on a fluke while pitching to a local black business group in the early 1980s.
“One person at the meeting said, ‘Do you have a black history tour of the city of Chicago?’ I thought ‘Oh God, I can’t be trying to sell people on going to Canada and I don’t have anything on Chicago.’ So I said, ‘Of course!’” she recalled, laughing.
He wanted to book the Chicago tour — the one that didn’t exist yet — for his upcoming family reunion.
“Back I go to the library,” Morris said. “I found so much information. I think to do everything that I originally thought I wanted to do, it would have taken seven hours.”
She got it down to two hours, but as the years ticked by and she found out more about the city, it inched back up to three hours. A monument to the army’s first all-black unit here, a soul food restaurant where civil rights leaders strategized there.
In a city whose heritage includes Ida B. Wells, Chess Records, Oprah, Obama, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Blues, Gospel and open heart surgeon Daniel Hale Williams, Morris is never at a loss for material.
“Some people say, ‘Girl, I’ve been in this city all my life and I had no idea,’” she said.
She’s currently considering splitting the tour into two — one for the downtown and West Side, the other for the downtown and South Side.
In the decades since, she’s had groups from as far as Japan, France and Timbuktu. She has booked corporate trips, family reunions, school groups, church groups, senior centers and black trade and business associations.
“And then the children! Sometimes I can’t even get off the coach. ‘Miss Morris! Miss Morris! Wait a minute, so so so and we passed this place and what did they do then?’” she said, laughing.
Miss Morris will be 70 next year. She shuffles a bit as she walks, a leftover from a childhood accident that put metal pins in her leg well into adulthood. She has had triple bypass surgery.
But she’s that little girl again — the one laughing and joking and sprinting into the wrong bathroom before her grandma could stop her — the moment she starts talking about the centuries of history that sustain her.