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Rooks Turner would be instrumental in the education of Elizabeth City's African American population. His son would go on to become a Harvard graduate and university professor.
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Rooks Turner would be instrumental in the education of Elizabeth City's African American population. His son would go on to become a Harvard graduate and university professor.

African American educators turned the tide of history

By Robert Kelly - Goss

The Daily Advance

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Thomas W. Cardozo, Wiley Lane and Rooks Turner were three men among many who would make a difference in the education of African Americans in the 19th century, yet their stories seem to go untold.

But Elizabeth City State University professor of history Glen Bowman wants to tell you their stories and he will do so at three lectures beginning today at College of the Albemarle, 2 p.m.

These lectures are a part of a journey for Bowman. It is a journey that is uncovering the rich history of African American education in the region, a history that has been quiet for too many years.

“Without the contributions of these individuals, we wouldn’t have what we have today,” says Bowman of the three educators.

Bowman will give two more lectures, one Thursday, 7 p.m. at Chowan University in Murfreesboro and one Saturday at Museum of the Albemarle, 12:30 p.m.

Bowman points out that these three men, as well as others, were so instrumental in bringing education to the region, that it saddens him that their memories have been left unturned.

“Even though I am not African American, and not from North Carolina — but proud to consider this now my home — I consider this sad,” says Bowman. “In my opinion, anyone who values education should consider this sad. These men do not deserve to be forgotten.”

Immediately after the Civil War, slaves had been freed. Bowman says there was an insatiable hunger for learning throughout the African American community, and there were

men and women who were prepared to feed the appetite.

Thomas Cardozo was one of those men. Cardozo was born in Charleston, S. C., in 1838, the son of Lydia Williams, a freeborn black woman and a Portuguese Jewish journalist, Jacob Cardozo. His efforts here in Elizabeth City would create a domino effect of education, educators and academics.

After the war’s end, the federal government set up the Freedman’s Bureau to assist former slaves in the transition to their new lives. One component of that transition was the creation of schools.

Cardozo was an educator and a freeman prior to the war who had connections in northeast North Carolina. He would move to Elizabeth City in 1869.

“He took over a school that had been started by the Freedman’s Bureau,” explains Bowman.

The school was located on what we now know as Harrington Road. It was one of many schools that would crop up over the years but it was this school that reached out to two men who would make great strides in the education of African Americans.

According to a paper written by the late Leonard Ballou, ECSU archivist, Cardozo was a man of many firsts. His school may have been the first black normal (teacher’s) school, he appears to be the first African American man to run for Pasquotank County sheriff and he is the first African American superintendent of education for the State of Mississippi.

Another educator that deserves to be praised, according to Bowman, is Wiley Lane.

Lane was one of Cardovo’s students. He was born in Elizabeth City in 1852 and while he didn’t spend his entire life here, he would eventually be buried here.

“Cardozo recommended him to go to Howard University where he got his education,” says Bowman. “He went to Amherst College (Massachusetts) and studied Greek and went back to Howard to become the first black professor of Greek.

“One of the first black professor’s, period.”

Lane would become a highly respected academic but would live a short life, dying in 1885.

“There is a proud history,” says Bowman. “To me it’s a shame that people like Wiley Lane – he was a man so eminent that Fredrick Douglas gave a eulogy at this funeral — were forgotten.”

And the third educator to be explored by Bowman is Rook Turner.

Turner, says Bowman, began his education late in life. He didn’t begin the first grade until he was in his 20s.

“And then he went through 12 years of education in no time,” says Bowman. Bowman says Cardozo encouraged Turner to study at Howard University. And while Turner would study there, each summer he would return to Elizabeth City to hold summer schools for the children here.

He eventually bought property on Roanoke Avenue and opened the Rooks Turner Normal School.

“He put his financial future at stake for the sake of schools and education,” says Bowman.

And Turner’s son, Lorenzo Down Turner, would go onto to become a highly respected academic. He was a Harvard graduate and Howard University professor. Bowman says one of the significant aspects of his research has been the unraveling of the early post-Civil War history of African American education in the region. He says there were a number of normal schools in the area, and many of them had similar names.

“There is a proud history of education in the African American community here,” says Bowman.

Bowman is also working on penning a history of Elizabeth City State University, an institute that began as a normal school, training teachers as well.

The goal of this presentation, however, is to help people understand the significance of the history here, not just that which is connected to ECSU, but also the history that predates the institution.

“Without the contributions of these individuals, we wouldn’t have what we have today,” emphasizes Bowman.