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Mon, 03.20.1905

Hartman Turnbow, Farmer, and Activist born

Hartman Turnbow

*Hartman Turnbow was born on this date in 1905.  He was a Black farmer, orator, and activist during the 20th-century American Civil Rights Movement.  

He was born in Mileston, Mississippi. His grandparents were former slaves, and he inherited their farm.  Turnbow was married twice and had six children: Jewross and Hartman and daughters Mae Alice, Mae Bell, Mary, and Christine.  He moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he met and married his second wife, Dee. They returned to Mississippi with their children, settling in Tchula, where he became an independent farmer and owned his land.  On April 9th, 1963, Turnbow, with a group of 13 other African Americans, including Hollis Watkins, Ozell Mitchell, and Alma Mitchell Carnegie, arrived at the Holmes County, Mississippi courthouse in Lexington to register to vote.  

This group became known as the “First Fourteen.” Several whites approached the group and attempted to intimidate and prevent the group from registering through voter suppression.  In a thick mob of angry whites, deputy sheriff Andrew Smith, with his hand on his gun holster, called out, “All right now, who will be the first?”  At that point, Turnbow stepped forward and told the deputy sheriff, "Me, Hartman Turnbow. I came here to die to vote. I'm the first." All fourteen took the literacy test and were failed by the circuit clerk. Although none of the “first fourteen” could register, their pride and courage drove the Movement in Holmes County.   

In May 1963, Turnbow fought off an attack on his family and himself with rifle fire.  Being consistent with the foundation of the freedom movement, Turnbow explained, “I wasn’t being non-nonviolent; I was just protectin’ my family.” In this instance, Turnbow exercised his right to private self-defense, just like Fannie Lou Hamer.   On May 7, 1963, Turnbow and his wife Dee took their daughter to choir practice at 7:00 pm. The family returned home around 9:30 pm when Dee noticed a vent was open in the kitchen ceiling. A quick search around the house was done, but nothing was found, so the Turnbow family slept.  Around 3:00 am on May 8th, Turnbow was awakened by an explosion, flames, and smoke.  His wife and daughter ran outside while two men started to shoot at Turnbow.  With his .22 sixteen-shooter rifle in hand, Turnbow shot back at the two assailants until he emptied that .22 rifle. The two white men ran away while Turnbow and his family spent the next few hours getting the flames under control.  

Sheriff Smith, accompanied by a deputy and FBI agent, arrived at the scene at 9:00 am.  Bob Moses, a non-Mississippi voter registration worker, was also on the investigation scene, taking pictures of the fire.  An investigator told Moses to stop taking pictures, and he was immediately arrested for interfering with the investigation after taking Sheriff Smith’s picture.  Turnbow and several other SNCC workers were later charged with arson and arrested by Smith. The only evidence at the preliminary hearing was a testimony given by Sheriff Smith. County Attorney Pat M. Barrett said he was “not a demolition expert,” but “it just couldn’t have happened.  There is no way on God’s earth for that situation to have happened like he said it happened.”  As a result of the case, Turnbow was bound over under a $500 bond by the Holmes County Grand Jury.  The charges against the other SNCC workers were dismissed for lack of evidence after they spent five nights in jail.  

In April 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was founded. Turnbow was elected delegate of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where he testified his personal accounts of voter suppression.  Turnbow once confronted Martin Luther King Jr., informing him: “This nonviolent stuff ain’t no good. It’ll get you killed.”  SNCC’s Joyce Ladner accompanied Turnbow and his wife in Atlantic City for the 1964 Democratic National Convention.  She recalls, “Mrs. Turnbow always carried a little brown paper bag. She had a pistol in it. […] But she didn’t trust those people. People had tried to firebomb her home so that she might have been in the presence of a senator and a congresswoman, but she carried a gun. Hartman Turnbow died on August 15, 1988, at Methodist Hospital of Middle Mississippi in Lexington at 83. His funeral was held on August 24 at the Rock of Ages Church of God in Christ in Tchula. Elder Fred Wade officiated with interment in the Pinkston Cemetery north of Lexington.  

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