Monograph Publishing and the University of Missouri Release Book About a Slave Who Started Schools for “Colored Children”
James Milton Turner was born a slave in 1839, and four years later his family gained their freedom. James' parents realized the value of a good education for their young son. However, there were no schools available during that time for colored children who were not even allowed to learn to read and write. A family friend, Reverend John Berry Meachum, secretly began to teach these young children in his church. Sometime later, Meachum discovered that there was no law restricting colored children from being taught on the river, so James attended school on a small steamboat anchored near St. Louis.
When James was ready for college there were none in Missouri that would accept colored students. Because James was very intelligent, his parents wanted him to further his education. They sent him away to Oberlin College in Ohio where he remained until about 1857 when he returned to St. Louis after his father's death.
Finding employment for a colored man in a slave state in 1861 was very difficult, so James took odd jobs to make a living. When the Civil War broke out, James became a Union army aide to Colonel Madison Miller, who trusted him and became his friend. As the war progressed, Turner risked his own life by helping slaves escape to Illinois, a slave-free state. When Missouri ended slavery, Turner became active in civil rights, campaigning for the right of colored people to vote and attend school. In 1869, he and his wife, Ella, moved to Boonville, Missouri, and started their own school for colored children.
Appalled at the condition of colored schools across the country, Turner traveled all around Missouri to start schools to accommodate these children. When the Civil War ended, colored Union soldiers donated $6,000 to open a school in Jefferson City, Missouri, and what began as Lincoln Institute in 1866 is known today as Lincoln University.
As Turner became more well known around the country, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him United States Foreign Minister to Liberia. He continued to press for education for all people, stressing that the country needed good schools if children were to succeed in the future. Eventually, James Milton Turner became a lawyer and continued in his quest to help people obtain what was rightfully theirs: an education, a home and dignity.