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Wed, 06.24.1840

James M. Turner, Activist born

James M. Turner

*The birth of James M. Turner is celebrated on this date in 1840.  He was a Black Reconstruction Era politician, activist, educator, and diplomat.  

James Milton Turner was born into slavery in St. Louis, Missouri. As a child, he was sold on the steps of the St. Louis US Courthouse for $50 (US$ 1,500 in 2020). His enslaved father, John Turner, was a "horse doctor." Allowed to keep some of his earnings, he eventually purchased freedom for himself and his family. At fourteen, Turner attended Oberlin College in Ohio for one term; following his father's death in 1855, Turner had to return to St. Louis to care for his family.

Turner attended John Berry Meachum's Floating Freedom School on a steamboat on the Mississippi River, which Meachum had set up to evade the 1854 Missouri law against the education of blacks.  When the American Civil War broke out, Turner enlisted in the Union Army and served as a body servant for Col. Madison Miller. He was wounded, resulting in a permanent limp.  After the war, Miller's brother-in-law, Missouri Governor Thomas Fletcher, appointed him as assistant superintendent of schools. He was responsible for setting up schools for black Missourians. He helped establish the Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, the first institution of higher education for Blacks in the state. The Institute's name was later changed to Lincoln University.

As a politician, Turner, an outspoken member of the Radical Republicans and a Missouri Equal Rights League leader, was highly regarded for his oratorical skills. In 1868, he was installed as the principal of Lincoln School, the first school for blacks in Kansas City, Missouri. J. Dallas Bowser succeeded him.  In 1871, Turner was appointed as consul general to Liberia by Republican President Ulysses S. Grant. He relocated to Monrovia and held that post until 1878. During this time, he was involved in settling the Grebo war.  When he returned to St. Louis, Turner played an important role in helping to resettle Black refugees from former Confederate states in the South.

He also worked to organize freedmen and people of color free before the Civil War as a political force; they overwhelmingly joined the Republican Party, considered the party of Abraham Lincoln. Turner also took part in relief efforts for Blacks who had left the South for Kansas as part of the Exoduster Movement of 1879. Many of these migrants settled in St. Louis.  In 1881, Turner worked with Hannibal Carter to organize the Freedmen’s Oklahoma Immigration Association to promote Black homesteading in Oklahoma. As chairman of the Negro National Republican Committee, he proposed nominating Black US Senator Blanche Bruce as the vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket in 1880.  

Turner worked during the last two decades of his life in fighting for the rights of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw freedmen in the Indian Territory. After the war, the US government made new treaties with these tribes, which supported the Confederacy. They required the tribes to offer full citizenship to those freedmen who chose to stay in tribal territory, as the US had done for freedmen in the United States.  He successfully lobbied Congress for the nearly 4,000 Cherokee Freedmen to receive $75,000 (US$ 2,134,200 in 2020) from funds the U.S. government had paid the tribe in 1888 for their land.

The Cherokee originally did not want to divide the money for communal lands to include the freedmen.  In late 1915, Turner was in Ardmore, Oklahoma, representing the freedmen in a legal dispute. When a nearby railroad car exploded, the debris cut his left hand. Blood poisoning developed in the wound, and Turner, the first Black to serve in the U.S. diplomatic corps, died November 1, 1915, in Ardmore.  The Turner School in the Meacham Park area of Kirkwood, Missouri, was named for Turner. The school opened in 1924 and was renamed after Turner in 1932; it closed during the 1975-1976 school year. 

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