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James Milton Turner (1839? – 1915)

James Milton Turner was a significant leader in the areas of African American education, civil rights
Civil Rights refers to rights that all individuals in a society are guaranteed by their government in order to protect them from unfair treatment. In the United States, a citizen's civil rights are outlined in the first ten amendments of the Constitution, which are called the Bill of Rights.
, and foreign diplomacy during the decades after the Civil War
The Civil War was a military conflict that began on April 12, 1861, when Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Several Southern states had seceded from the United States (also known as the Union) and formed the Confederate States of America (also referred to as the Confederacy) out of fear that the United States' newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, would not allow the expansion of slavery into new western states. Battles and skirmishes were fought throughout the country by Union and Confederate forces. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. As other Confederate forces heard the news of Lee's surrender, they surrendered as well and the war was soon over. Over half a million men were killed or wounded in the war. Thousands of former slaves gained their freedom. After the war, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed prohibiting slavery, providing equal protection for all citizens, and barring federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote due to their race, color, or status as a former slave.

Born into slavery in St. Louis County in either 1839 or 1840, James Milton Turner and his mother, Hannah, were freed in 1843. His father, John Turner, was a free black who shoed horses. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, young James was educated in secret schools in the St. Louis area. An 1847 Missouri law prohibited teaching blacks.

After attending Oberlin College in Ohio, Turner returned to St. Louis in the late 1850s. He worked as a porter until the Civil War began. During the conflict, he acted as a body servant for Madison Miller, a Union colonel.

Turner quickly gained prominence as a black politician after the war ended, becoming known for his speaking ability. He became involved in numerous activities to advance the rights of African Americans in Missouri and the nation. He worked for the Missouri Department of Education, establishing over thirty new schools throughout the state for African Americans. He also helped gain support for Lincoln Institute (now Lincoln University
Lincoln University is a traditionally black school located in Jefferson City, Missouri. It began as Lincoln Institute in 1866 and was conceived and supported by the black soldiers who served with the 62nd and 65th Regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops Infantry. In 1921 Lincoln Institute became Lincoln University, and in 1954 Lincoln opened its doors to students of all races.
This manumission paper shows James Milton Turner and his mother Hannah being freed by Theodocia Young on December 5, 1843. Turner Manumission This manumission paper shows James Milton Turner and his mother Hannah being freed by Theodocia Young on December 5, 1843.

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In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Turner as the U.S. minister to Liberia, making him the first African American to hold that position. Established in 1820, Liberia was founded by free blacks and former slaves from the United States. While serving there, Turner became convinced that African Americans should not return to Africa in great numbers. He did not believe they would be able to adapt to the climate. His views were not popular with other blacks.

James Milton Turner later in life Turner later in life James Milton Turner later in life.

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After returning from Liberia in 1878, Turner’s influence continued to decline. Like many other black leaders of the time, his status as an educated black alienated him from lower-class African Americans. Despite his loss of power, Turner remained committed to advancing black causes and seeking equality with whites. He helped provide relief for blacks fleeing the South. Later he became an advocate for former black slaves of the Cherokee who had land and oil claims in the Oklahoma Indian Territory.

About a month after being injured in a tank-car explosion, James Milton Turner died from blood poisoning on November 1, 1915, in Ardmore, Oklahoma. While Turner had not been in the public light for a number of years, many African Americans remembered the important contributions he had made to advance racial equality. Large crowds attended his funeral in St. Louis to pay respect. A junior high school and an office building near St. Louis in Kirkwood, Missouri, are named in honor of him.

Text and research by Elizabeth Engel


References and Resources

For more information about James Milton Turner's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about James Milton Turner in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.

Historic Missourians: James Milton Turner
James Milton Turner, circa 1870James Milton Turner, circa 1870.

[Courtesy Lincoln University, SHS 017997]

James Milton Turner

Born: 1839?
Died: November 1, 1915 (age 76?)
Categories: African Americans, Educators, Leaders & Activists
Region of Missouri: St. Louis
Missouri Hometown: St. Louis