Born on March 17, 1825 somewhere in Weldon, North Carolina, Benjamin Sterling Turner was the son of slaves. At the age of five, he was taken to Alabama in the company of his mother and widowed owner, Elizabeth Turner, where he remained enslaved until the Emancipation Proclamation. Benjamin obtained a fair education via clandestine study and reading newspapers. By the age of 20, he read and wrote fluently. In 1865, Turner became a teacher and was actively involved in establishing the first school for black children.
After growing up, Turner engaged in mercantile pursuits in Selma, Alabama, where he managed a hotel owned by Major W. H. Gee, husband of Elizabeth Turner’s step-daughter. During this time, he was still a slave and most of the income Turner earned went to Gee. He was also actively involved semi-independently with a livery stable and woodpile and was allowed to keep a portion of the profits. Dr. James T. Gee, brother of Major Gee, later inherited Turner and recognized the man’s skills and intelligence. He employed Turner as manager of the St. James Hotel in Selma. Prior to the Civil War, Turner was able to purchase property, in addition to managing his owner’s property while Gee served in the Confederate Army.
During the 1850s, Turner married a woman named Independence. A son was born to the couple and named Osceola. Following the lad’s birth, Independence, who was still enslaved, was sold to a new master and the couple was forcibly separated, with Osceola remaining with his father.
In the spring of 1865, Union troops entered Selma and burned two-thirds of the city. The fire resulted in a loss for Turner amounting to $8,000. Turner tried, in vain, to gain repayment for his loss from the Southern Claims Commission. (Noted in the U.S. Census of 1870 is the fact Turner owned $2,150 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property. This fact ranked him as one of Alabama’s wealthiest freedmen.)
In 1867, Turner was elected to be Dallas County’s tax collector during the Republican state convention. In 1869, he became a councilman for the City of Selma, the first black to do so. During September 1870, he was foreman for Selma’s Central Fire Company, No. 2, which consisted of 40 members. Turner’s political career continued to grow as he found himself nominated unanimously as the Republican candidate during Reconstruction from the Alabama’s 1st District, comprised of the state’s southwest section and a large portion of the Black Belt region. (This area is named for the dark, rich soils found in somewhere between 12 and 21 Alabama counties situated in the central portion of the state. The ‘Black Belt’ stretches from Maryland to Texas.). Turner’s district encompassed Alabama’s second-largest black voting bloc with blacks comprising approximately 52% of the district. He defeated Democrat Samuel J. Cummings by winning 18,226 votes on November 8, 1870. From March 4, 1871 until March 3, 1873, Turner served in the 42nd Congress. He was Alabama’s first black member and the second black to serve in the House, with Hiram Revels being the first to do so.
Denied the opportunity to speak on the House floor, Turner submitted the text of his speeches to the Congressional Globe Appendix. These speeches were later reprinted in various southern newspapers and later as pamphlets. He was also instrumental in helping pass three bills while an active participant in the Committee on Invalid Pensions. While in Congress, Turner worked to restore the legal and political rights of those who fought on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War were on the receiving end of a pension in the amount of $8/month due to Turner’s efforts. He also worked strongly to repeal the tax on cotton due to the effect it had on poor black Americans. Added with these efforts were measures to appropriate $200,000 for construction of Selma’s federal building and the rebuilding of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Turner’s efforts, including five bills aimed at eliminating legal and political restrictions on Confederates, were ignored by Congress. (The 43rd Congress later passed the Amnesty Act which lifted these restrictions.)
Turner was back on the ballot as the Republican candidate for his district in 1872. Harboring a tendency toward conservatism, Turner refused to appoint political allies to various important positions and failed to pass economic revitalization bills. This weakened his support in Selma. In addition, he faced another black candidate on the ballot – Philip Joseph, who was listed as an independent. Editor of a local newspaper and a freedman prior to the Civil War, Joseph’s appearance on the ballot split the black Republican vote and resulted in F. G. Bromberg’s election with 44% of the vote. A fusion candidate, Bromberg was supported by liberal Democrats and Republicans. Turner won 37% of the vote and 19% went to Joseph.
After leaving politics, Turner purchased a 300-acre farm near Selma. In 1877, he lost his livery stable during Alabama’s economic recession in 1877. At the age of 69, Turner suffered a stroke which paralyzed him. He died impoverished on March 21, 1894 in Selma, Alabama, with his former efforts largely forgotten. He was laid to rest in Live Oak Cemetery. His obituary in an Alabama newspaper noted, “…it is sad that his last days were clouded by debts which swept away his all.” Thankfully the hotel Turner operated in Selma has been restored and is still in operation.
North Carolina has since erected a marker in memory of Benjamin S. Turner as part of its North Carolina Highway Historical Marker Program. Turner’s marker is located on US 158 at SR 1641 (Country Club Road) east of Weldon. The marker reads, “Benjamin S. Turner 1825-1894. U.S. Congressman 1871-1873, representing Alabama. Merchant and Farmer in Selma, Alabama. Born into slavery one mile south.”
Turner was honored in 1985 with a monument at his graveside which recognizes his service to the people of Alabama, along with his accomplishments. Speaking at the dedication ceremony was Jeremiah Denton, the first Republican US Senator from Alabama since Reconstruction.