Turner, J. Milton
J. Milton Turner
Despite his humble beginning as a slave, James Milton Turner became a prominent African American politician during the Reconstruction period in the United States, serving in Liberia. He was an ardent advocate for black rights from 1865 to 1866 and after his return from Liberia in 1878. Turner's main focus was equality for all African Americans. He worked for voting rights, equal educational opportunities, and fair treatment for southern immigrants. He also fought for former slaves of the Cherokee nation to secure their equal tribal rights. Although Turner was recognized while he was active, he was never given the recognition that he deserved at his death.
James Milton Turner was born to slave parents on or about May 16, 1840, supposedly on the same day as James Milton Loring, his master's son, in St. Louis, Missouri. His father, John Turner, a literate black man, may have been born in Virginia. John Turner learned some veterinary skills from his master, and he was referred to as Black John the Horse Doctor; however, official records indicate he was a horse ferrier. He was also referred to as John Coburn, and he migrated with his master Frederick Coburn to St. Louis, Missouri where he met his wife, Hannah. There are conflicting stories about how she gained her freedom. One story is that Hannah's master, Loring, took her from Kentucky to Missouri, and after John Turner gained his freedom, he bought the freedom of his wife and son when the child was about four years old. Another story suggests that Theodosia Young, who had received Hannah as a wedding gift, freed her and her son.
Though James Turner was free, he had limited educational opportunities. Missouri State laws restricted blacks from learning to read. Despite these restrictions, Turner attended a school developed by a former slave, Reverend John Berry Meachum, which provided general education for slave children under the guise of religious instructions. Turner also attended St. Louis Catholic Cathedral where nuns taught black children. His outstanding reading skills are also attributed to an unconventional religious white man who believed that everyone should be able to read the Bible. At fourteen, Turner entered the Christian, integrated Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin's annual catalogue records his name in its 1855–1856 issue. His stint at Oberlin was brief, but he returned to his hometown an educated black man.
He married Ella De Burton from Cincinnati who was then living in Missouri. She died on March 2, 1908, in St. Louis, leaving her daughter from a previous marriage. Turner was a father to his stepchild and niece who was orphaned. These two girls attended Oberlin College.
Interest in Education for Blacks
Turner became a spokesman for black education. He became involved in the American Missionary Association (AMA) that established free schools for blacks. The AMA started these schools in St. Louis, but they were adopted in all the states. After he married, beginning in April 1886, Turner taught in Kansas City. The AMA enlisted the help of the Freedmen's Bureau that, in turn, asked Turner to assist with a program to evaluate black schools. Turner established and taught in schools for blacks in many locations. He also investigated the health of black schools and education in Missouri. He asserted the need for trained teachers, especially black teachers in black schools. When he visited Lincoln Institute, the first public black institution or normal school in Missouri, he became particularly committed to equal education. Turner believed that the same laws that governed and maintained white schools should govern black schools. He campaigned for black education all over the state.
- Born a slave in St. Louis, Missouri on May 16
- Freed from slavery at four years of age
- Attends Oberlin College, Ohio
- Works as a porter
- Body servant to Col. Madison Miller, a member of the Union Army
- Works with the Freemen's Bureau
- Arrives in Liberia as U.S. minister resident consul general
- Returns to United States from Liberia at the end of his tenure
- Organizes the Colored Emigration Aid Association
- Teaches in Kansas City
- Dies near St. Louis on November 1
Turner worked several jobs, but he was interested in politics. Returning to Missouri as an educated black man, he had worked as a porter from 1859 to 1860. During the Civil War, he worked as a body servant to Colonel Madison Miller, a member of the Union Army. He thought that he witnessed Colonel Miller's death, so he turned over Miller's money in his keeping to Miller's wife. On Miller's safe return from the war, Turner was rewarded. His official introduction to politics resulted from his honesty. He met Mrs. Miller's brother, Thomas H. Fletcher, who was involved in the Radical Republican Party. Turner believed that the Radical Republicans would serve the interest of the black people by extending civil liberties to them.
Turner was involved in the Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape from the South to the North. His interest in civil rights continued when he became involved in the Missouri Equal Rights League in 1865. He became secretary for the association in 1871. He was known for his promotion of political equality for blacks and equal educational opportunities. As an active member of the Equal Rights League, Turner worked to convince whites to vote for an amendment to the voting law that prevented black suffrage. He lobbied through the media. However, black suffrage did not occur until the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment was accepted. Blacks were able to vote freely for the first time in 1870. Turner helped mobilize blacks to vote although they were fearful because of racism, and there was also widespread illiteracy. In addition, he fought for blacks to be able to sit on juries. His absolute goal was the elimination of white biases and the establishment of racial equality.
Turner was drawn to the Radical Republicans whom he believed had genuine interest in the plight of the blacks. He helped to mobilize blacks to vote for Republicans because he was convinced that federal power would strengthen the position of the blacks. The Republicans depended on the black vote. Because he was closely affiliated with the Republicans, educated, and had interest in black civil liberties, Turner was chosen by President Grant to be the U.S. minister resident consul general to Liberia, where African Americans were being colonized.
When he entered Liberia in 1871, Turner was not prepared for his job. The United States wanted friendly relations with Liberia. But native Africans were opposed to the emigration of African Americans because the newcomers were given lands by the American-led Liberian government that belonged to natives. Issuing these lands to colonists caused tension that led to open revolt by the Grebo people. Turner criticized the United States for colonizing people who were virtually displaced without any provision for self-reliance. Turner encouraged integration with natives. He also suggested education as a means of nation building. After returning from a stay in the United States, where he went to recuperate from malaria, he was more convinced that the United States was neglecting its colonized people just as it neglected African Americans in the States. Turner returned to the United States in 1887 disillusioned with the federal government but still committed to fighting for black civil liberties.
Continues Civil Rights Struggles
Two years after his return from his duties in Liberia, Turner organized the Colored Emigration Aid Association in 1879 to assist colored immigrants who were leaving the South. This organization was not successful, but at least the plight of emigrants was made public. Turner's last major act was to ensure that former slaves who belonged to the Cherokee nation gained full tribal rights. In these fights, Turner's position as a legal representative allowed him to perform the duties of a lawyer. He argued extensively that the tribal legislation, that gave the freed-men a share of land, was violated because these men did not receive their lands from the government. He also involved himself in similar problems faced by the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations.
Turner established schools for blacks throughout Missouri. He used his political power to oppose segregation and helped obtain education and voting rights. He was the first black U.S. ambassador. Mostly his allegiance was for the Republican Party. He preached self-sufficiency to blacks as he believed that they could uplift themselves. Turner's last days were active; however, he died on November 1, 1915 unexpectedly from an injury that he received a few days before from a car explosion accident.
Kremer, Gary R. James Milton Turner and the Promise of America Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
Dilliard, Irving. "James Milton Turner: A Little Known Benefactor of His People." Journal of Negro History 19 (October 1934): 372-411.