It was 1863, and the long-awaited Emancipation Proclamation had finally been signed. After spending the first 40 years of his life as a slave in Selma, Alabama, Benjamin Sterling Turner was ready. He secretly taught himself to read as a young child and had spent years managing businesses for other people — it was finally his turn.
Turner built a successful business, lost everything when Union troops invaded Selma in 1865 and rebuilt the business after the war ended. In 1870, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and became Alabama’s first black congressman.
Turner’s little-known story is the topic of Mobile author Frye Gaillard’s new children’s book, “The Slave Who Went to Congress,” released last month from NewSouth Books. Gaillard was raised in Mobile and now serves as writer in residence at the University of South Alabama. He has written nearly 30 books — many of which focus on Southern race relations, politics and culture — but children’s literature is a new niche.
“In the realm of education, we can argue that we’re making progress in conveying an understanding of slavery so people no longer think slaves were happy,” Gaillard says. “I will never forget covering a school board meeting in 1969 as a cub reporter for the Mobile Press-Register when a historian read an excerpt from a history book that was in use at the time. It said that ‘slaves showed bright rows of white teeth when they smiled’ because of how happy they were.’”
Gaillard says generations of Americans learned an incomplete or downright false history of slavery. However, the Reconstruction era, the brief period after slavery ended and before Jim Crow laws were enacted, is even less understood. “We’ve got to start teaching this hard, sometimes complicated history,” Gaillard says. “And teaching it to children through stories of inspiration seems to be an effective way to do it.”
The Story of Benjamin Sterling Turner
When Gaillard stumbled across the largely unknown story of Turner, he sensed it would provide valuable insights to elementary-aged children learning about Alabama history. Together with coauthor and educator Marti Rosner, Gaillard spent hours at the Selma Public Library poring through newspaper articles, voting records, photographs and Turner’s speeches to collect information for the 32-page children’s book.
Turner’s story intrigued Gaillard and Rosner, not simply because he was the first black man from Alabama elected to Congress, but also because of his nuanced opinions and powerful speeches.
“His platform, in my opinion, had overtones of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. long before the Civil Rights era,” Gaillard says. “He advocated for full and equal rights for former slaves — the right to vote, equality in the eyes of the law, integrated schools and land set aside for slaves to purchase as reparations for slavery. But the other half of his platform was racial reconciliation. He did not believe in punishing Confederates, but instead sought to bind up the wounds and move forward together.”
Unfortunately, Turner’s views were not shared by most of his fellow congressmen. He was not allowed to speak on the House floor, and he only served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1871-1873.
Soon after his defeat, white supremacists succeeded in codifying racist ideals into law, ushering in the Jim Crow era. Measures like poll taxes, literacy tests and residency requirements drastically decreased voter turnout in black and poor white communities, making it nearly impossible for black politicians to be elected into office until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 abolished many of the tactics used to suppress black voters.
“History is largely written by the winners, and Turner didn’t win, so he and other public figures like him have been left out of much of our history,” Gaillard says. “But he held up a vision that, had it been heeded, would’ve put us 100 years ahead.”
Writing the Book
While Gaillard brought his experience in telling stories about race and history to the project, coauthor Rosner provided expertise in children’s literature. Rosner, who lives in Marietta, Georgia, taught first and second grades for 23 years before becoming an academic literacy and social studies coach in Title I schools.
Rosner says the story could’ve been told in a chapter book format for older readers, but literacy research shows an increase in the popularity and effectiveness of graphic novels and other books that use illustrations alongside words to tell stories.
“I think 32- to 40-page picture books are becoming very important, especially for children learning a second language and struggling readers,” Rosner says. “It thrills me to death because I want stories like Turner’s to be available and accessible to students who might not understand it if it was written differently. Getting this book and others like it into educators’ hands and using it first as a read-aloud would be very beneficial.”
One of the aspects of the book Rosner loves is its first-person narrative style. “It just seemed like the natural thing to do,” she says. “After reading so many of his speeches, I felt like I knew his voice, and I thought that telling the story through his voice and his eyes would be a great hook and make him even more interesting.”
When publisher Suzanne La Rosa of NewSouth Books in Montgomery first learned about the book, she knew it was a project she wanted to support.
“Frye and Marti have found a gem in this little-known story,” La Rosa says. “It’s an important Alabama and national story that couldn’t be in better hands. The book has been well researched and thoughtfully written, and praise is already coming in from reviewers.”