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Benjamin Sterling Turner: The Slave Who Went To Congress


A new children’s book tells the story of an African-American who began breaking barriers in the post-Civil War South. “Benjamin Sterling Turner was enslaved for the first 40 years of his life," said Frye Gaillard, an historian and writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

Gaillard says he first learned about Turner while researching a book on the civil rights movement in Alabama. That research took him to Selma, where he ran into pictures of Turner at several different museums in the city.

“After he was freed, after the Civil War, he became very involved in the civic life of Selma (Alabama), and was involved in founding the first school for African American children, and he served on the city council, and he served in other capacities. Then in 1870 he ran for Congress.”

Benjamin Turner won that race and served a single term in Congress. His story is the subject of the book "The Slave Who Went to Congress", written by Frye and longtime educator and academic coach Marti Rosner. Rosner, who teaches in Cobb County, Georgia, reconnected with her old friend Gaillard and brainstormed about book ideas. “He told me about Benjamin Sterling Turner and I loved the idea," said Rosner. "I thought it was wonderful. So we started talking about it and it just kind of flew from there.”

Rosner and Gaillard did much of their research in Selma, where they found out that Benjamin Turner played an important part in healing the community after the war.

“He ran on a platform of universal suffrage (and) universal amnesty," said Gaillard. "What he meant by that was universal suffrage, full citizenship rights, voting rights for African Americans, for former slaves. But (also) universal amnesty, meaning no punishment for former Confederates. He was kind of (had) almost a Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela sensibility of all coming together for a just future.”

The story is told in a picture book aimed at readers between the ages of 7 and 14. Rosner says it’s important to strike the right balance between historical accuracy and understanding the book’s age group.

“What I do as an educator (is) I try to find out where this history comes in what they are learning in what grade level" said Rosner. "That was important to me, because if we’re going to write the book it had to be in a voice that particular group of children would understand. And it seems like fourth grade is where a lot of kids in many states study the Civil War. Could it be for a young audience as well? Depending on who the children are, yeah, sure.”

“While the history (the book) reveals is hard history, it’s tough, it’s about war, it’s about slavery and it’s about discrimination and harsh things, ultimately it’s a story of inspiration," said Gaillard. "It’s the story of a man who refused to knuckle under to any of that.”

Both authors feel that the illustrations in the book will capture young readers imaginations as well. They are the work of Jordana Haggard, a student at the University of Florida majoring in Digital Arts and Sciences. This is her first published work. Gaillard says she impressed the publisher with her skill and flexibility.

“When she started out on this project she was a freshman at the University of Florida. We just thought she was a young artist of extraordinary talent. And there’s so much feeling as well as technical skill in the illustrations that it’s just one of the things that carries the book. Every bit as much as the story itself, as Benjamin Turner carries the book. We’re just really proud of Jordana.”

Rosner afrees. “She was just fantastic through the entire project. She learned, she wanted everything to be exact. Any questions that she had, she came to us, we answered, she went back and redid and reworked and revised until the illustrations are what you see now.”

"The Slave Who Went to Congress" is available now from New South Books

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.
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