Born into slavery, Benjamin Sterling Turner (1825-1894) was an entrepreneur, business executive, civic leader, and legislator. Turner became the first African American Republican Representative from Alabama elected to the U.S. Congress (1871-1873). He was a political moderate and proponent of reconciliation who promoted the industriousness of his constituents and sought to restore political rights for former Confederates. Turner was a loyal Republican regarding issues of education and civil rights.
Turner was born on March 17, 1825, in Weldon, Halifax County, North Carolina. In 1830, his widowed owner, Elizabeth Turner, relocated to Selma, Alabama, along the Alabama River, where Turner allegedly obtained an informal education alongside the family's white children. In 1845, the husband of Elizabeth Turner's stepdaughter, Maj. W. H. Gee, purchased Turner. His education continued through reading newspapers, and by age 20, he could read and write fluently. Gee employed him as the manager the Gee Hotel in Selma, and he also worked semi-independently at a livery stable and woodpile. Turner kept a portion of the profits from these endeavors. Physician James T. Gee, brother of W. H. Gee, inherited Turner and, recognizing Turner's skills and intelligence, employed him as manager of the St. James Hotel in Selma. In the 1850s, Turner married an enslaved African American woman named Independence, with whom he had a son named Osceola, who remained in the care of Turner through the 1870s. The couple was forcibly separated following her sale to a white slaveholder.
Prior to the Civil War, Turner purchased property and maintained his owner's property and businesses and continued this oversight while Gee served in the Confederate Army. In the spring of 1865, Union troops burned two-thirds of Selma, which resulted in a financial loss of at least $8,000, as estimated by Turner. He would attempt to gain repayment from the Southern Claims Commission, which allowed Union sympathizers from southern states to apply for reimbursements for wartime property losses. Following the war, he operated a successful livery stable, worked as a farmer, merchant, and teacher, and founded the first school in Selma for the education of African American children. In 1867, Turner attended the Republican state convention and was elected the tax collector of Dallas County. By 1869, he had become the first African American city councilman in Selma but refused to accept financial compensation and resigned. In September 1870, he became the foreman of the Central Fire Company, No. 2, in Selma. The Census of that year reported that Turner owned $2,150 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property, which made him one of the wealthiest freedmen in Alabama.
Also in 1870, Turner ran for the seat in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Alabama's First District, which included Selma and a large chunk of the Black Belt region in the west-central part of the state. In a letter to the Selma Press outlining his platform, he argued for equal political rights for all classes and races, a reduction of the federal debt, and the restriction of officeholding in Alabama to only persons residing in the state. His district, which encompassed the second-largest black voting bloc in Alabama (at nearly 52 percent of the district), politically supported Turner. He defeated Democrat Samuel J. Cummings with 18,226 votes in the November 8 election to take his seat in the Forty-second Congress. During his congressional career, he sought financial aid for Alabama to counter the devastation of the war. He introduced five unsuccessful bills aimed at the elimination of legal and political restrictions imposed on former Confederates; they finally would be lifted with the passage of the Amnesty Act of the Forty-third Congress. Turner was at odds with some Republicans after he took a more radical stance regarding the injustices of slavery and advocated for desegregated schools and financial reparation for former slaves.
Turner also sponsored a bill to appropriate $200,000 for the construction of a federal building in Selma, as well as to rebuild the St. Paul Episcopal Church there. When Republican leaders denied him the opportunity to speak on the House floor, he submitted speeches to the Congressional Globe Appendix, which were reprinted in southern newspapers and published as pamphlets. Although his bill did not pass, Turner was able to assist individual Alabamians through his position on the Committee on Invalid Pensions and Committee, helping to pass three bills that placed two white and one African American Civil War veterans on the pension roll at $8 per month. He also advocated for the return of taxes on cotton collected by the federal government, which many in the South believed to be unconstitutional and published a speech decrying the burdensome taxes imposed on southern industry.
Republicans nominated Turner for reelection in 1872, but his tendency toward conservatism, refusal to appoint political allies to important positions, and failure to pass economic revitalization bills weakened support in his Selma district. Class tensions within the African American community led to a split ticket with Independent Party candidate Philip Joseph, freeborn editor of the Mobile Watchman. As a result, white candidate Frederick G. Bromberg, who ran on a Democratic and liberal Republican fusion ticket, won the general election with 44 percent of the vote. Turner took 37 percent, and Joseph earned 19 percent.
Following his congressional career, Turner returned to his livery stable and mercantile business in Selma; he would later lose his mercantile business during an economic downturn in the late 1870s. In 1874, he purchased a 300-acre farm near Selma and served as an election official for municipal elections in 1875, 1877, and 1891. In 1880, he attended the Alabama Labor Union Convention and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Chicago and as a Republican presidential elector. He was elected to the Selma City Council in 1885 but did not seek reelection for a second term and turned to agricultural pursuits. In early 1894, Turner suffered a stroke, became paralyzed, and died nearly penniless at his farm in Selma on March 21 of that year. He was buried at Live Oak Cemetery in Selma.
In 1985, Turner was honored for his accomplishments and service to Alabama with a monument at his gravesite. Jeremiah Denton,
the first Republican from Alabama to serve in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, spoke at the dedication ceremony. The
St. James Hotel in Selma has been restored and remains open.
Bailey, Richard. They Too Call Alabama Home: African American Profiles, 1800-1999. Montgomery: Pyramid Publishing, 1999.
Clay, William L. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991. New York: Amistad Press, 1992.
Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Freedman, Eric, and Stephen A. Jones. African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History. Washington D. C.: CQ Press, 2008.
Middleton, Stephen, ed. Black Congressmen During Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook. Westport: Praeger, 2002.
Brett J. Derbes
Published June 26, 2012
Last updated June 26, 2012