The actor, who was the first-ever Black cast member on 'Saturday Night Live', tells PEOPLE he's faced plenty of racism throughout his life — both on screen and off
Before Garrett Morris found stardom in 1975 as the first Black cast member on Saturday Night Live, the 87-year-old comedian faced plenty of discrimination during his childhood in a segregated part of Louisiana.
"My mom had me at 16, so I was raised by my grandparents," he tells PEOPLE of his childhood. "My grandfather pastored at different churches, during the time that there were definitely Black parts of town and white parts of town. It sort of reminded me of Texas and June 19th, when they said they didn't know slavery had been abolished — people pretended they didn't know segregation was supposed to be over."
To counterbalance the daily reality of the Jim Crow South, Morris decided to lean into his church choir background and become a professional entertainer.
By the time he'd been picked to be a part of the Belafonte Folk Singers, who were a touring group of rotating singers who occasionally sang background for Harry Belafonte, he was used to racism being part of his life.
"One time we were in L.A., and we were playing the Greek Theatre," Morris recalls of his time with the Folk Singers. "We'd usually tour around but this time we were going to open for Harry, so we rehearsed for the week beforehand. One day after rehearsal, I decided to go for a walk around Los Griffith Park."
Looking back, he says wished he hadn't. "Now, why did I do that?"
Morris says at some point during the walk, he heard a car honk behind him. He ignored it, but it was a cop car. They policemen pulled over, and said the five words that Morris says are rather familiar to young Black men in America: "Up against the wall, motherf---er."
"They were asking why I was there, what I was doing walking around," Morris says. "It was just WWB: Walking While Black. That's what I was doing."
Morris says he kept explaining that he was a singer, and the cops just laughed. "I remembered I had the key to our hotel so I went to show them. Well, when the copy are patting you down, you don't reach into your pocket without telling them what you're doing and why."
The next thing he knew, he was face down on the ground and getting handcuffed, then dragged off to the precinct.
"I kept saying, 'What are you arresting me for?'" and they said, 'Burglery, a--hole.' I tried telling them I'd only been in town for three days, and I wouldn't be so stupid as to burgle a house without casing it first."
The cops didn't think it was funny, and threw him into a cell while they checked his records both in New York City and with the FBI — both of which were completely clean.
"Eventually they said they couldn't find anything on me, and that's when I told them to check the itinerary in my pocket. It said the name of Harry Belafonte, who was one of the most internationally famous singers at the time. Suddenly they were calling me 'Mr. Morris.' But they did not apologize.
Morris was released, but the experience soured his "naive" idea that the West Coast was all progressives. "In the real world, there was still a significant amount of racism everywhere," he says, adding that that certainly included showbiz.
Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from juicy celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.
When he got to Saturday Night Live as a writer, he said he faced more racism but it wasn't overt — more like a white writer trying to steal his ideas, including for one of his most famous sketches about donating to the "White Guilt Relief Fund."
Morris eventually left the series after five seasons, and went on to work on TV show's including The Jeffersons, Diff'Rent Strokes, 227, Hill Street Blues, Martin and 2 Broke Girls.
He laughed about having to wait so long for the recognition, but noted he didn't actually mind.
"Whenever it comes is all right," he said. "I'm grateful."
For more People news, make sure to sign up for our newsletter!
Read the original article on People.