Image courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration
Born a slave, Benjamin Turner of Alabama became the first African American from Alabama to serve in Congress.
On this date, the first African-American Representative
from Alabama, Benjamin Turner
, was born a slave in Weldon, North Carolina. In 1830, Turner moved with his widowed owner to Selma, Alabama, where he likely obtained an education as a playmate to the family’s white children. After having been sold around 1845, and subsequently inherited by his new owner's family, Turner managed his owners’ businesses in exchange for part of the profits. The Union Cavalry freed Turner after overrunning Selma in 1865, but he lost much of his savings in the resulting destruction. Turner recouped his losses working as a merchant, and a farmer and dabbling in local Republican politics. In 1870, he made a bid for a southwestern Alabama U.S. House seat. Running on a balanced platform of “Universal Suffrage and Universal Amnesty,” he won a seat in the 42nd Congress
(1871–1873). Having witnessed firsthand the devastation of the Civil War, Turner
spent much of his congressional career seeking financial aid for Alabama. He also was among the more conservative black politicians, favoring universal amnesty for former Confederates. Turner insisted, “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.” In 1872, Turner faced a black third-party candidate, Philip Joseph, backed by local black elites who disapproved of Turner’s modest education and profession. The move effectively split the African-American vote, allowing Democrat Frederick Bromberg victory. Turner returned to his businesses. Falling victim to the boom and bust economy of the late 19th century, he died nearly penniless on March 21, 1894.