Benjamin Sterling Turner was born on March 17, 1825, in Weldon, North Carolina, as a slave. He had no formal education as a child, but he learned to read and write secretly. He moved to Selma, Alabama, with his mother and slave owner in 1830. There he worked as a hotel and stable manager, saving some money to buy property after the Civil War.
Turner was one of the wealthiest freedmen in Alabama, owning $2,500 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property in 1870. He also became a teacher and helped establish the first school for black children in Selma. He entered politics in 1867, becoming a tax collector of Dallas County and a city councilman of Selma.
In 1870, Turner was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as the first black congressman from Alabama. He represented the 1st congressional district, which had a majority of black voters. He ran on a platform of “Universal Suffrage and Universal Amnesty”, seeking to reconcile with former Confederates and protect the rights of former slaves.
In Congress, Turner served on the House Committee on Invalid Pensions, where he advocated for pensions for Union war veterans, including black ones. He also proposed bills to fund the reconstruction of federal buildings and churches damaged by the Civil War in Alabama. He was one of the first congressmen to call for reparations for ex-slaves, suggesting that the government should buy land and sell it to freedmen in small parcels.
Turner also challenged the tax on cotton, which he argued was unconstitutional and harmful to his constituents, who were mostly poor farmers. He demanded that the tax be refunded for the years 1866 to 1868. However, his proposals were ignored by the Republican-dominated Congress, which favored more radical measures.
Turner lost his re-election bid in 1872, after facing a challenge from another black candidate in the Republican primary. He returned to Selma, but his fortunes declined during an economic recession in 1877. He lost his business and became a farmer, but he struggled to support his family. He died on March 21, 1894, impoverished and largely forgotten.
Benjamin Sterling Turner was a pioneer of black political representation in Alabama and the nation. He tried to balance the interests of his black and white constituents, while fighting for justice and equality for his people. His life and legacy deserve more recognition and appreciation.