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March is Women's History Month, and WGLT is recognizing 21 women who shaped Bloomington-Normal. New episodes every weekday in March.

Jeanne Morris is a courageous change-agent who helped bring fair housing and early childhood education to B-N

 Jeanne Morris, sitting in a classroom, with the background in black and white.
Jeanne Morris is one of WGLT's 21 Women Who Shaped Bloomington-Normal.

Jeanne Morris doesn’t scare easily. 

Morris grew up in rural South Carolina. She could see Fort Sumter – where the first shots of the Civil War were fired – out the front door of her childhood home.

If you ask Morris if she was ever scared living and working as a Black woman in a very white Central Illinois in the 1960s and 70s, she gives a quick response: “I grew up in the South.”

Because of Morris, Bloomington-Normal is a more welcoming place than it was before she got here.

Morris and her husband, Charles, were among the first Black faculty members at Illinois State University. When they moved to Normal in 1966, they faced housing discrimination and couldn’t find a place to live. They attacked the problem on two fronts. They fought for passage of fair-housing ordinances, which happened in Bloomington in 1967. And in the 1970s, the Morrisses and three other couples bought four houses and rented them to ISU students of color who were facing discrimination themselves when trying to find off-campus rentals.

“I became their mother,” said Jeanne, who still lives in Bloomington-Normal.

The Morrisses are still empowering young people today, even in retirement. Their fight for fair housing helped inspire the Bloomington-Normal NAACP’s Youth Council to feature them in a documentary released in 2022. 

“Sometimes you may have to create your own destiny, even in the face of racism and discrimination and retaliation,” said Carla Campbell-Jackson, first vice president of the local NAACP branch. “(Jeanne’s) words of encouragement continue to reign, even to younger generations.”

Jeanne was an educator, just like her mother. Early in her career she gravitated toward early childhood education, then an emerging and increasingly popular field. Head Start launched nationally in 1965, and Jeanne helped bring it to ISU’s Metcalf lab school. She considers her work to bring early childhood education to ISU her proudest achievement.

“They didn’t have that program before. It was time, in this country, for people to be looking differently at children with special needs and children from low-income backgrounds,” she said.

Morris also served on the board for The Baby Fold, based in Normal. She’s a charter member of a local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority; it was chartered in her dining room, in fact. For that and more, Jeanne and Charles were named McLean County History Makers in 2017.

Morris has certainly shaped Bloomington-Normal – and she’s still doing it. Alongside their daughter Lyn, the Morris family is supporting a new music program at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA.

Campbell-Jackson, with the NAACP, said Jeanne is a courageous change-agent.

“She’s a mover, she’s a shaker, and she’s an icon – from years past and years to come.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.