Thomas Wyatt Turner

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Thomas Wyatt Turner
Thomas Wyatt Turner.jpg
Born(1877-03-16)March 16, 1877
DiedApril 21, 1978(1978-04-21) (aged 101)
Nationality American
Education Howard University,
Cornell University
Occupationcollege professor, botanist
Known forfounding member of NAACP;
founding member and president of Federated Colored Catholics
Spouse(s)Laura Miller, Louise Wright
Parent(s)Eli Turner and Linnie Gross (Turner)

Thomas Wyatt Turner (March 16, 1877 April 21, 1978) was an American civil rights activist, biologist and educator. He was the first black American to receive a PhD in Botany, and helped found both the NAACP and the Federated Colored Catholics.

Contents

Personal life and education

He was born in Hughesville, Maryland. [1] His parents, Eli and Linnie (née Gross) were sharecroppers and he was the fifth of their nine children. [2] When he was eight, his father died and he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, James Henry and Rose Turner. Turner worked in the fields but also attended Episcopal local schools from 1892 onwards after Catholic schools refused to admit him because of his race. From 1895 - 1897 he attended the Howard University Preparatory School. [1]

He studied at Howard University gaining B. S. (1901) and M. A. (1905) degrees. [2] In 1901 he attended the Catholic University of America briefly to further improve his scientific knowledge but had to leave because it was too expensive. [1] In 1921 he was awarded Ph. D. in botany by Cornell University the first black person to gain a doctorate from Cornell. The thesis was entitled The physiological effects of salts in altering the ratio of top to root growth and came from work done with Otis Freeman Curtis during summer leaves-of-absence from his post as Dean at Howard University. [2] - His first wife was Laura Miller. In 1936 he married Louise Wright. [2]

He died at the age of 101 in 1978, 36 days after celebrating his birthday. [1]

Career

After graduation, Turner headed to the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama at the request of Booker T. Washington, where he taught academics in biology for a year. [1] From 1902 he gave service to various public schools in Baltimore, Maryland for a decade, except for a year (1910-1911) at the St Louis High School in St Louis, Missouri. From 1914 to 1924, he served as a Professor of Botany at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which had provided courses in botany since 1867. [1] [2] He was the founding head when the Department of Botany was established in 1922. [3] He also served from 1914 to 1920 as Acting Dean at the Howard's School of Education. As well as biology he felt that the mentorship provided by teachers and faculty had a vital impact on student's careers. [1] Turner was initiated as a member of Phi Beta Sigma fraternity in 1915.

From 1924 - 1945 Turner was professor of botany and the department head at the Hampton Institute. [2] [4]

While working at Cornell University in 1918, Turner worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Maine, where he examined potato fields. The American government consulted Turner throughout his career about agricultural problems. Under the auspices of the United States Secretary of Agriculture, Turner worked as a collaborator on Virginia's plant diseases. In 1931, Turner organized the Virginia Conference of College Science Teachers in 1931, and served as president of that group for two terms. Turner also was an active member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Society for Horticultural Science.

He retired in 1945 due to glaucoma. [4]

Rights and civil liberties activism

Turner was also known as an activist who was a staunch defender of black rights and civil liberties. His activism, curiously, has overshadowed his many scientific accomplishments. In 1909, he was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) [2] as the first secretary of the Baltimore branch, and was also active in promoting the right of blacks to vote. He continued this activism after his appointment to Howard University. In 1915 he organised a city–wide membership drive for the Washington NAACP. [1] He was eventually honored with a lifetime membership in the NAACP.

Turner was active in Catholic organizations and in societies for the advancement of African-Americans. He remained a loyal member of the Roman Catholic Church despite suffering discrimination: he wrote of being asked to move to the back of the church when attending Mass in St. Louis in 1926. From 1915 to 1935, alone and as a member of the Committee of Fifteen, he lobbied the Catholic University of America to admit black students and for the Catholic church to provide high school education for black Catholic children and a route to the priesthood for young black men who had a vocation (specifically the Josephie Fathers at St Mary's seminary in Baltimore). [1] On December 29, 1924, [1] Turner founded, and was elected president of, the Federated Colored Catholics, an organization that he said was "composed of Catholic Negroes who placed their services at the disposal of the Church for whatever good they were able to effect in the solution of the problems facing the group in Church and country". [5]

In 1976, at age 99, Turner was awarded an honorary doctorate by The Catholic University of America. [1]

Publications

Legacy

His papers and unpublished autobiograph are among the Turner Papers at the Moorland–Spingarn Research Center. [1]

From 1976 the annual Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner Award is given by the Secretariat of the National Office of Black Catholics in Washington, D. C. for work towards equal rights. [1]

In 1978 the Hampton Institute named its new natural sciences building Turner Hall. [1]

The Cornell Graduate School created the Turner Kittrell Medal of Honor for alumni who have made significant national or international contributions to the advancement of diversity, inclusion and equity in academia, industry or the public sector. [4] The first award was in 2017.

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References

  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Marilyn W. Nickels (1988). "Thomas Wyatt Turner and the Federated Colored Catholics". U.S. Catholic Historian. 7 (2/3): 215–232. JSTOR   25153830.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Cobb, Ed. "Thomas Turner: First African-American to receive a Ph.D. in botany in the U.S." College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Cornell University. Retrieved 6 July 2020.
  3. "History - Research-Oriented Graduate Programs in Biology at Howard University". Biology. Howard University. Retrieved 7 July 2020.
  4. 1 2 3 Aloi, Daniel. "Gary Harris '75 given alumni honor for diversity, inclusion efforts". Cornell Chronicle. Cornell University. Retrieved 6 July 2020.
  5. Pasquier, Michael. "White Catholics have 'to talk about race and to admit their racism'". America:The Jesuit Review. America Media. Retrieved 6 July 2020.

Further reading