“In the year 1865 two thirds of the city of Selma was reduced to ashes by the United States Army . The Government made a display in that unfortunate city of its mighty power and conquered a gallant and high-toned people. They may have sinned wonderfully but they suffered terribly.
“War was once the glory of her sons, but they paid the penalty of their offense, and for one, I have no coals of fiery reproach to heap upon them now. Rather would I extend the olive branch of peace, and say to them, let the past be forgotten and let us all, from every sun and every clime, of every hue and even shade, go to work peacefully to build up the shattered temples of this great and glorious Republic.”
Those were the words of Alabama’s first Black congressman, Benjamin Sterling Turner, delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives on May 30, 1872. It was part of his appeal to gain funding to rebuild Selma. The Selma Times Journal, which reprinted part of Turner’s speech (Jan. 20, 2008) described Turner as a “good man who was born into slavery, yet was not embittered by it, and lived a lifetime serving his city, state and country well.”
Reconstruction Alabama, was a bitterly divided society of radical Republicans, carpetbaggers, resentful Confederates, Klansmen and sundry other white supremacists. Turner was the most unusual of public servants, a moderate.
Turner was born in 1825 in North Carolina. His owner, a widow named Elizabeth Turner, took him with her when she moved to Selma. Ben Turner was 5 at the time. Turner learned to read and write, likely by sitting in with the family’s white children during their lessons. When he was 20, Elizabeth Turner sold him to W.H. Gee who was the husband of her stepdaughter.
Gee deployed Turner to manage his livery stables and the Gee Hotel in Selma. Turner married an enslaved woman named Independence, but she was sold to a white man who took her as a mistress. When Gee died, Turner was inherited by his brother, James Gee. Based on his experience, James Gee assigned him to manage the St. James Hotel in Selma.
Turner’s education and experience served him well after emancipation and he became a successful farmer and merchant in Selma. He also set up a school for Black children there in 1865.
Turner first ran for Congress in 1870. His home district had a 52 percent Black electorate. He financed his campaign by selling a horse. His platform: universal suffrage and universal amnesty. He ended up winning 58 percent of the vote, defeating Democrat Samuel J. Cummings.
Turner only had two years in Congress. He spent it tirelessly advocating for the people in his district. This included: seeking repeal of a tax on cotton, urging reparations for ex-slaves, and supporting various economic revitalization bills. His appeals fell on deaf ears as Congress acted on none of these initiatives.
When he was up for re-election two years later, the Black vote was split between himself and another Black candidate, newspaper editor Philip Joseph. As a result, the Democratic candidate Frederick G. Bromberg was elected with 44 percent of the vote.
Turner returned to his businesses, but suffered serious losses during the depression of the 1870’s. He was nearly penniless when he died in 1894 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
More than 90 years later, in 1985, a group of Selma citizens, both Black and white, made donations to place a marker on Turner’s grave. The following year, at an unveiling of a portrait of Turner at the Old Depot Museum, the Montgomery Advertiser (Feb. 10, 1986), reported these comments from city leaders:
“’If John F. Kennedy had been aware of Benjamin Turner, he would have included him in ‘Profiles In Courage,’ said state Rep. W.F. ‘Noopie’ Cosby, D-Selma.
“’It’s high time his courage has been recognized,’ Selma City Council President Carl Morgan said.
“’This diverse group is more of a monument to him than the portrait,’ said state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma.”
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