For our columnist, NAACP is all in the family

Frank Turner (bottom, center) at the 1932 NAACP convention in Washington, D.C. (TURNER FAMILY COLLECTION)

MY IN-LAWS' family tradition of fighting for civil rights dates back to the earliest days of the NAACP, which concluded its 106th national convention in Philly yesterday.

It began when famed sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, author of The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study and The Souls of Black Folk, was a professor at Atlanta University and found himself in need of a secretary. According to family lore, DuBois, one of the NAACP's founders, wrote to Wilberforce University - one of the nation's oldest historically black colleges - where he once had taught, for a recommendation. The school suggested my husband's paternal grandfather, Frank M. Turner, who graduated in 1909.

Those were racially tense days. Segregation was rampant and the lynching of blacks by angry white mobs was in full force. In 1908, Springfield, Ill., had been the scene of an ugly race riot after white residents went after black citizens.

The founders - a group of white liberals and seven blacks including DuBois - formed the NAACP in 1909 to fight for equal rights for African-Americans.

DuBois served as the NAACP's director of publicity and research and also as founder/editor of The Crisis, the NAACP's long-running publication. Turner, who moved from his hometown of Richmond, Ky., to New York City, became the NAACP's chief bookkeeper and accountant.

A letter in the W.E.B. DuBois archives at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on NAACP letterhead offered to pay Turner $50 a month for his services. (In another letter from the same period, DuBois offered to kick in an additional $50, bringing the offer to $600 for an 11-month stretch.)

Standing Fast: The Autobiography of Roy Wilkins, co-authored by the late NAACP executive director, describes my husband's grandfather as "a quiet gentleman named Frank Turner; he kept to himself, avoiding the office politics and intrigue that drew everyone else like bees to clover."

Turner, who had six sons who survived to adulthood, established a home in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., where he also helped start a neighborhood NAACP branch. He served as that group's secretary. A neighborhood paper, the Times Ledger, in 2003 credited Turner with being among the activists who stopped the Ku Klux Klan from holding parades in the area.

Turner was known for being efficient and exceptionally thrifty - traits that have trickled down to my own sweet husband. But I digress. Family legend has it that the NAACP wouldn't have made it through the Great Depression were it not for Turner's frugal ways with the organization's meager finances.

Joyce Turner married one of Turner's sons - the late W. Burghardt Turner, who was named after DuBois. Yesterday she told me that the late Thurgood Marshall, an attorney for the NAACP who later become a Supreme Court justice, once went to Turner seeking money for a lawsuit. He was told that there was none to be had. Marshall reportedly asked, "How much is in that safe?"

Turner responded, "Three dollars."

"The point was, not only was he a tightwad for the organization, but they had very limited resources," recalled Joyce, 94.

Turner stayed with the NAACP until his death in 1941.

Burghardt, whom the family called "Burg," followed in his father's activist footsteps. He became a storied history professor at New York's Stony Brook University and also leader of an NAACP branch on Long Island. Burg campaigned on behalf of President Obama back in 2008. Before his death in 2009 at the age of 93, the Turners threw a party in his honor.

I'll never forget how Burg looked around that room - filled with people of all races because of so much intermarrying and interracial dating in recent years - and urged his children, grandchildren and everyone else to carry on the family tradition of supporting the NAACP.

It was his final request.


On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong

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Email: armstrj@phillynews.com