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Turner 19th Century advocate for education

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Rooks Turner

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Jessica Cosmas
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The lifework of Rooks Turner is often overshadowed by that of his contemporaries, the preeminent P.W. Moore and Hugh Cale. Moore and Cale are remembered as the founding fathers of Elizabeth City State University (ECSU). Turner, however, was a fierce advocate for African-American education in his own right.

Born as a free person of color on October 24, 1844, Rooks Turner was the ninth child to Daniel and Margaret, known as Peggy, Turner. Daniel Turner was remarkably successful as a free black man in antebellum North Carolina. He and his wife owned nearly 70 acres near Elizabeth City. The Turners were industrious, yielding wool, flax, cotton, and rice from their land. Rooks worked the family farm until 1866, when the Freedman’s Bureau opened the first school for African-American students in Elizabeth City.

Even as Rooks was in his early twenties at the time, he entered the first-grade. Under the guidance of principal Thomas W. Cardozo, Rooks completed his primary education in only four years’ time. Cardozo then encouraged Rooks to enter Howard University in Washington, D.C., another successful institution begun by the Freedman’s Bureau. Between semesters at Howard, Rooks would return to North Carolina and pass on what he learned to his community. Eleven years after he entered his first classroom, Rooks Turner graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

Washington D.C., during the Reconstruction Era held promise for young Black men like Rooks. The capitol was progressive, allowing African-American men to vote in local elections as early as 1867. The rest of the country did not extend such voting rights until the 15th amendment was ratified in 1870. Nevertheless, Rooks sought homecoming. He wished to open his own school in Elizabeth City.

In 1879, Rooks purchased a three-acre plot near present day 200 Roanoke Street. The property included a two-story house where he would operate the Rooks Turner Normal School. This private school conducted intermittent training sessions for teachers. In this regard, some scholars suggest that Rooks Turner laid the ideological framework for the Elizabeth City State Colored Normal School.

An 1883 letter addressed to education superintendent J.C. Scarborough even recommends Rooks Turner to lead a state-run school in Elizabeth City. The General Assembly, however, did not establish the school that would became ECSU until Hugh Cale introduced House Bill 383 in 1891. When the school opened its doors in 1892, P.W. Moore led the class. At this time, Rooks Turner had dedicated himself to traveling throughout Pasquotank county to teach and open schools similar to his.

Following the establishment of the Rooks Turner Normal School, Rooks took a wife. In 1880, Rooks married Elizabeth Sessoms Freeman. The couple soon expanded their family. Elizabeth gave birth to four boys, but only three survived to adulthood. Rooks Jr., Arthur, and Lorenzo Dow Turner were all imbued with the desire to learn like their father. Each son pursued professional careers in medicine, law, and education. The youngest, Lorenzo Dow Turner, rose to notoriety by conducting ground-breaking research on Gullah-Geechee culture. Rooks Turner imparted a wonderful legacy of education on his family and this region.

Jessica Cosmas is an Artifact Collections Specialist at Museum of the Albemarle.

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