meet the first black child star of the 1920s
May 31, 2019
Ernest Fredric Morrison was born in New Orleans in 1912, and found his big Hollywood break at the age of three, thanks to an emergency on a set involving a child who would not stop crying. Morrison’s father worked for a wealthy Los Angelas family and had friends in the industry; one of whom was a crew member on what would be his son’s first film. Ernest came onto set and blew the producers away, instantly earning the nickname “Sunshine Sammy”. Thus, according to face2faceAfrica, Ernest Morrison became Hollywood’s first Black child actor, as well as the first Black actor to sign a film contract
The Sunshine Sammy Series would eventually be created after Morrison blew away audiences in 1916’s The Soul of a Child, his debut film. He was also a member of the original Little Rascals, and part of comedy troupe Dead End Kids/East Side Kids, coming in as the most experienced member. Sources say that the child star was being paid $10 000/year at the time, making him the highest paid Black actor in Hollywood. Morrison also worked alongside young Hollywood actors of the era like silent star Baby Marie Osborne. According to the Los Angeles Times, Morrison later appeared in show Our Gang for 28 episodes before he moved to New York to perform on vaudeville.
“The picture business was great. Our Gang? We all got along. No Problems. And when we weren’t working, we were playing. And when we were working, we were playing! Hal Roach, Harold Lloyd, Bob McGowan- they didn’t make it a job, they made it fun. It was a beautiful childhood,” Morrison said in an interview.
World War II stopped Morrison’s career short, owing to him being drafted into the Army to entertain troops in the South Pacific. After the war ended, he rejected offers from producers for years and ended up taking a job as a quality control inspector for an aerospace company in Compton — a job he held onto for 17 years. “A lot of people have asked me what happened to the coloured boy, Sunshine Leo Morrison, who played Scruno in the East Side Kids. He now has a highly technical job in a missile plant,” wrote Leo Gorcey in his 1967 memoir, An original Dead End Kid presents: dead end yells, wedding bells, cockle shells, and dizzy spells.
The next job Morrison took was in 1974, as the messenger in Good Times. In 1987, he was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. He passed away in California at the age of 76 with 145 films under his belt – a Black Hollywood legend.
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