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Book tells story of former slave who helped found Missouri schools


Linda Geist
University of Missouri Extension
Phone: 573-882-9185

Photo available for this release:

Cover of "J. Milton Turner: An American Hero."

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014

Story source:

Todd Lorenz, 660-882-5661

BOONVILLE, Mo. – A new children’s book released during Black History Month tells the story of a former slave who helped organize rural schools for blacks in Missouri.

The Cooper County University of Missouri Extension Council published “J. Milton Turner: An American Hero,” by Mary Collins Barile. The book tells the story of the Cooper County resident’s rise from slavery through education. It is based upon a biography series by Missouri State Historical Society executive director Gary Kremer. Peggy A. Guest is the illustrator and Art Schneider, retired MU Extension human development specialist, was general editor.

“Black History Month is a perfect time to celebrate Turner’s work and how one man’s perseverance and dedication created opportunities for generations of people,” said Todd Lorenz, Cooper County program director for MU Extension.

Extension faculty, staff and council members began working on the project about eight years ago and hope to provide a copy of the book to each fourth-grade student in Cooper County.

Turner was born into slavery in St. Louis County around 1839. He and his mother were freed in 1843. Because it was illegal in Missouri to teach blacks to read and write, he was educated in secret and even attended classes aboard a steamboat moored on the Mississippi River. He went to Oberlin College in Ohio. After returning to St. Louis in the late 1850s, he found employment as a hotel porter.

When the Civil War began, he became an aide to Union Army Col. Madison Miller of St. Louis. He helped slaves escape to Illinois. After the emancipation of slaves in Missouri, he campaigned for the right of blacks to vote and attend school.

After the war, he was appointed Missouri’s assistant superintendent of schools and charged with establishing schools for freed blacks. He played a role in founding a teacher training school for blacks in Jefferson City called Lincoln Institute, known today as Lincoln University.

In 1869, Turner and his wife, Ella, moved to Cooper County and established Boonville’s “first school for colored children,” said Barile.

In the 1870s, Ulysses S. Grant appointed Turner minister to Liberia. He continued to press for education for all people and became a lawyer. He died in 1915.

“He helped many people obtain what was rightfully theirs—an education, a home and dignity,” Barile said.

“Slavery’s never pretty,” she said, “but I think the book shows that people who endured slavery could gain an education and change the culture of America.”

The book is available from at and Barnes & Noble at