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Turner, J. Milton(1840–1915) - Consul, politician, Chronology, Continues Civil Rights Struggles

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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.



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

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.

Turner, Ted - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Ted Turner, Social and Economic Impact [next] [back] Turner, Charles H.(1867–1923) - Scientist, zoologist, researcher, educator, Becomes an Educator, Chronology, Gains International Prominence as Researcher

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