James Milton Turner was born a slave in St. Louis County on May 16, 1840. Seven years later, Missouri passed a law forbidding the education of blacks, but that didn't stop the Turners.
Educated in secret, James attended Ohio's Oberlin College for one term when he was 14. When he father died in 1855, he had to return to St. Louis to support his mother. Turner worked as a porter until the beginning of the Civil War. He became a body servant (valet) to Union Captain Madison Miller of the 1st Missouri Infantry. By the time the war was over, Miller was a colonel and the two of them had fought together at Wilson's Creek and Shiloh.
Thomas Fletcher, Miller's brother-in-law, was elected governor of Missouri in November 1864. When he was sworn in on Jan. 2, 1865, Fletcher appointed Turner assistant superintendent of schools and put him in charge of establishing schools for black children. A resident of Boonville, the first schools he opened were there.
While he served in the Department of Education, Turner was responsible for opening over 30 schools across Missouri, including Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City, which was the first black high school and teacher training school in Missouri. That school is now Lincoln University.
Turner did not limit his service to education. He was one of the founders of the first political black organization in the state — the Missouri Equal Rights League. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him consul general to Liberia, where he served in Monrovia until 1878.
When he returned from Liberia, Turner continued to help black children make it in a white man's world. He served on the Refugee Relief Board and, in 1881, helped organize the Freedman's Oklahoma Immigration Association to promote homesteading in Oklahoma.
James Milton Turned died of flood poisoning from an explosion in Ardmore, Oklahoma, on Nov. 1, 1915, and is buried in St. Louis.
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written Historically Yours for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008. In celebration of Missouri's upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to [email protected]