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Turner, Benjamin S.(1825–1894) - Politician, Endures Civil War, Becomes Leader after War, Represents Alabama in Congress

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While still a slave, Benjamin S. Turner acquired considerable wealth as a livery stable owner and merchant. After the Emancipation, he served Selma, Alabama, as tax collector then as city councilman. A short time thereafter, he became the first African American to represent Alabama in the United States House of Representatives.

Born March 17, 1825, in Halifax County, North Carolina, near Weldon, Benjamin Sterling Turner entered life as the slave of widow Elizabeth Turner. History does not record his parents’ names. When Mrs. Turner moved to Dallas County, Alabama, in 1830, she took her five-year-old slave with her. Thus, Turner grew up in the heart of cotton country.

In 1845, Mrs. Turner sold Benjamin to Major W. H. Gee, her stepdaughter’s husband, to pay off some debts. Despite laws against educating slaves, Gee’s children taught Turner to read and write, a skill he practiced by reading newspapers. Even when one of Gee’s overseers caught Turner reading a spelling book and threatened punishment, Turner persisted in his efforts to learn. Eventually, Turner’s master put him in charge of the Gee House Hotel, a new family business in Selma, Alabama.

When Gee died, Turner became the property of Dr. James T Gee, his former master’s brother. Aware of Turner’s previous work experience, Dr. Gee gave his new slave responsibility for the St. James Hotel, one of the largest in Selma. Unlike many slaveholders, Gee allowed Turner to earn extra cash by running a livery stable and a wood yard. Through his business dealings, Turner earned the respect of both blacks and whites. In Neither Carpetbaggers nor Scalawags: Black Officeholders During the Reconstruction of Alabama, 1867–1878 , Richard Bailey comments that Turner’s “perseverance, inquisitiveness, diligence, loyalty, and attentiveness” contributed to his success. The contacts he made with influential citizens of both races during this time eventually proved politically valuable.

Endures Civil War

Probably sometime in the 1850s, Turner married a young black slave named Independence. Some records indicate that the couple had a son named Osceola. But the marriage came to a heartbreaking end when a white man purchased Turner’s wife for his mistress. Turner never married again.

Charles Carey notes in African-American Political Leaders: A-Z of African Americans , “When the Civil War broke out, Selma became a manufacturing center and supply base for the Confederacy.” Turner invested in the war effort by purchasing $200 in Confederate bonds. Throughout the war, he cared for his own business and for that of his absent owner, who served with the Confederate Army.

On April 2, 1865, Union general James H. Wilson’s cavalry captured Selma, took prisoners, and confiscated horses, equipment, and supplies. Worse yet, they burned a significant portion of the city. Turner lost most of his property and later filed a claim for an $8,000 reimbursement with the Southern Claims Commission. With or without the fulfillment of that claim, he began rebuilding his wealth.

In 1865, at the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Turner’s freedom, he chose to settle in Selma and to open a mercantile business. Valuing the education he had earned despite adverse circumstances, he used his own money to finance the establishment of a school for Selma’s black children. Some sources state that for a while he became a teacher.

Becomes Leader after War

Turner definitely became involved in efforts to reestablish order after the war. With a white doctor, John H. Henry, Turner urged fellow freedmen to make contracts with their former owners, or with other employers, and return to work. The white community noticed and appreciated Turner’s peaceful efforts to bring order to a chaotic situation.

Seeing Turner’s influence, officials appointed him Dallas County tax collector in 1867, after implementation of the Reconstruction Acts. Turner resigned after a year to run for Selma city councilman, running as an Independent. In 1869, he and another former slave became the city’s first black city councilmen. When the city began paying its councilmen a salary, Turner resigned, prompted by his conviction that public servants should fulfill their roles without pay during such troubled times.

By 1870, Turner held property worth $10,000 and had gained a reputation as an honest, reasonable man. Holding the respect of the community and having experienced a taste of leadership, he sought further involvement in politics. Concerned about the racism he saw in the Democratic Party, he chose to affiliate with the Republican Party instead. He immediately used his influence to encourage many other blacks to join the Republicans.

Both blacks and whites supported Turner’s nomination as a congressman that year. But Republicans from the North chose not to support him financially because of his moderate political views. Forced to resort to raising his own money for the campaign, Turner sold a horse. His platform of “Universal Suffrage and Universal Amnesty” helped him win the right to represent Alabama’s First Congressional District at the 42nd Congress.

Represents Alabama in Congress

Turner became the first African American from Alabama to serve in the United States House of Representatives. Forty-five years old, he took office on March 4, 1871. Recently freed, he did not have years of background experience in politics. But this mild-mannered man took his new responsibility seriously and spoke well for the people he represented, even though Congress chose not to enact the bills he introduced. The man whom Carey called “a moderate with a vision,” spoke for his state and his people nonetheless.

Turner’s assignment involved serving on the Committee on Invalid Pensions. Three of the bills he introduced provided pensions for one black and two white veterans of the Union Army. According to William Rogers in American National Biography , Turner unsuccessfully “introduced five bills to remove the Fourteenth Amendment’s political disabilities from eight white Alabami-ans.” His attempt to obtain federal funding for repairs to an Episcopal church damaged during the war also proved unsuccessful.

Opposes Cotton Tax and Advocates for Federal Funding

Turner spoke eloquently for the repeal of the cotton tax imposed after the war. Calling the tax unconstitutional, he emphasized the extreme hardship imposed on the state and especially on the blacks who worked the fields. Although congressional colleagues recognized his political expertise, good judgment, and excellent understanding of congressional procedure, they ignored Turner’s pleas.

Chronology

1825

Born a slave near Weldon, North Carolina on March 17

1830

Moves with owner to Dallas County, Alabama

1865

Freed by the Emancipation Proclamation

1867

Appointed tax collector for Dallas County

1869

Becomes one of Selma’s first black city councilmen

1871

Represents Alabama as its first black in the U.S. House of Representatives

1874

Buys 300-acre farm near Selma

1880

Serves as delegate to Republican National Convention

1894

Dies on his farm in Alabama on March 21

Turner spoke in favor of appropriating $200,000 in federal funds for a public building in Selma that would serve as a custom house, post office, and revenue office. He argued the government’s pressing need for this space, the work the project would create for suffering yet deserving people, and the commercial growth that would result from the investment.

Not given the opportunity to present his arguments verbally before Congress, Turner did at least see his two speeches concerning these matters printed in the appendix of the Congressional Globe . The cotton tax still stood and the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds failed to introduce the bill for appropriation of funds before the full Congress.

Yet Turner continued his efforts toward influencing Congress to help revitalize the southern economy. He introduced a bill asking the government to sell land in small sections at greatly reduced rates to needy southern people, both black and white. His proposal involved selling tracts of 160 acres or less, according to the need. Buyers would pay 10 percent at the time of purchase and 10 percent each year until they completely paid for the land. The Committee on Public Lands never introduced this bill into Congress.

According to Rayford Logan in Dictionary of American Negro Biography , in Turner’s last few months in Congress, he “introduced no bills, but out of party loyalty supported the test oath, mixed schools, civil rights, and the franking privilege, while opposing civil service and the removal of names of battles on war flags.”

Returns to Private Life

In 1872, Turner returned to Selma to seek another term in Congress, supported by the Republican Party. He had a good chance to win the nomination until Philip Joseph, a black Independent and editor of the Mobile Watchman , decided to oppose him. Contrary to his quiet nature, Turner spoke out strongly against his opponent, attacking Joseph’s actions during the Civil War. The rivalry between the two black men insured the victory of Frederick G. Bromberg, a white candidate supported by the Democrats and the new Liberal Republican Party.

With this defeat, Turner ended his participation in national politics, but he remained active in local politics. According to Rogers, by 1880 Turner had served on the Alabama Republican executive committee three times. During that year, he attended the Republican National Convention as a delegate at large and also served as a Republican presidential elector.

At the end of his term in Congress, Turner returned to Selma. With his congressional retirement fund, he purchased a three-hundred-acre farm. In the nation’s extreme financial crisis during 1873 and the years thereafter, Turner went bankrupt. One source states that he became paralyzed following a stroke. For whatever reason, Turner was unable to overcome yet another financial setback. Creditors sold his farm to pay his debts. Turner died a few months later, on March 21, 1894, on his farm outside Selma. He is buried in Selma’s Live Oak Cemetery.

In 1985, blacks and whites joined together to honor Benjamin S. Turner, noting his accomplishments and the manner in which he represented his people and state. They established a monument at his gravesite. Organizers chose Jeremiah Denton, a white man and Alabama’s first Republican to serve as a United States senator since the Reconstruction, to speak at the dedication ceremony.

Turner, Charles H.(1867–1923) - Scientist, zoologist, researcher, educator, Becomes an Educator, Chronology, Gains International Prominence as Researcher [next] [back] Turn of the Screw

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