By Marti Rosner and Frye Gaillard; illustrated by Jordana Haggard. “The Slave Who Went to Congress” (NewSouth Books, Montgomery, AL, 2020); ISBN: 978-1-58838-356-3; Cloth: 32 pages; 1895.
By Mike Thomason
Children, especially in the fourth through sixth grades, have a great curiosity about all sorts of things, including topics their parents and teachers find challenging. One such topic is the history of slavery in Alabama.
The subject will certainly come up this month as it is Black History Month in the United States. “The Slave Who Went to Congress” is written for this age group, though it can also be read to younger children. Its wonderful illustrations will certainly keep everyone’s interest. It reads as if Benjamin Sterling Turner wrote it himself, but the text is by Marti Rosner and Frye Gaillard, and it is historically accurate as well as quite readable.
Turner, whose story this is, was born in North Carolina in 1825. Five years later, his widowed owner, Elizabeth Turner, took him and his mother to Selma in Dallas County. The young boy would make his home there until he died in 1894. Slaves were prohibited from learning how to read and write, but the young boy secretly listened to his owner read to her stepdaughters, and another of her slaves taught him the alphabet. By the time he was 19 he could read and write, and this opened a whole new world for the young man. It also got him into trouble with other slave owners who feared education would seriously undermine the “peculiar institution.”
When his owner died, the young man was bought by Maj. W.H. Gee, her stepdaughter’s husband, who valued the young slave’s literacy and soon had Turner managing his hotel and an attached stable in Selma. Turner undertook other jobs and gradually built up significant wealth. In the late 1850s he married another slave, Independence, and they had a son, Osceola. Then Independence was sold away and father and son never saw her again.
When the Civil War broke out, Gee was sent to Fort Morgan, taking Turner with him to serve as his cook and body servant. The fort was a long way from anything else, and was plagued with clouds of mosquitoes. Eventually Gee let his slave go back to Selma to help manage the St. James Hotel, the city’s largest. At the end of the war, in April 1865, a federal army led by Gen. James H. Wilson burned most of the town and confiscated everything in Turner’s Livery Stable. He had built up quite a sizable nest egg, but it was gone after that and he would have to start all over again.
He did so and by the late 1860s he was a wealthy man. He started a school for the children of freed slaves, and was elected tax collector for Dallas County. In 1870 he ran for Congress on the banner of “Universal Suffrage and Universal Amnesty.” Though he was a Republican, he opposed harsh penalties for former Confederate soldiers. Sadly, though he was the first black man to represent Alabama in Congress, he was not allowed to speak on the floor of the House.
After a single term he was defeated for re-election and returned to Selma. He eventually bought a 300-acre farm near town and concentrated on agriculture, though he remained active in the Republican Party. He suffered a stroke and died in 1894.
His is a remarkable story of ambition, perseverance and compassion even for those who did him wrong — and there were many who did. The text of “The Slave Who Went to Congress” is both historically accurate and readable, thanks to the skill of local author Gaillard, Rosner and the artistry of Haggard. The illustrations are unlike those of children’s books we have all seen. They are not threatening, nor are they cartoon-like, but they are very “grown up” as the middle school children would say. NewSouth Books has produced another valuable addition to literature on Alabama history.
“The Slave Who Went to Congress” is a wonderful addition to materials for Black History Month, but even better for any Alabama family or school library, to be read year round.
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