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Biography: William Alexander Turner


Bill Turner at home.William Alexander "Bill" Turner (1865-1928) was quite the Renaissance man. He may have been, at various times, a brawler; a bartender; a bouncer; a barber; a baseball player, coach and umpire; a drummer; a singer in a quartet; a Republican Party activist; a member of several fraternal societies; and a cake-walker. Most importantly, he was probably Wheeling’s first black police officer.[1]

Bill Turner’s Wheeling

The Civil War had recently ended and the state of West Virginia was just over two years old when William Alexander Turner was born to Alexander and Amelia Mason Turner on Saturday, November 25, 1865[2] in Ward 2 on the Chapline Street block between 10th and 11th Streets, an area that would long remain Wheeling’s black neighborhood, and the beat Patrolman Turner would later walk as a policeman.

The 13th Amendment, formally abolishing slavery, had been passed by Congress just 11 months before his birth and would be ratified by the states just a few days after. But by the time Bill Turner reached adulthood, Wheeling had passed its own set of “Jim Crow” segregation laws, following the standard set by the former Confederate states in creating a “separate but equal” legal status for blacks. In practice, the laws prohibited blacks from eating at the same restaurants, staying at the same hotels, or drinking from the same public water fountains as whites. That was the Wheeling in which Bill Turner grew up and the Wheeling in which he managed to serve as a police officer, presumably enforcing the very laws that rendered him a second-class citizen.

A Man of Local Celebrity

The first mention of a “Bill” Turner in the newspapers was found in the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer for December 26, 1885, which read, “Bill Turner, the well known colored youth yesterday got into a fight with Alex Gardner, the colored wrestler, and Alex came out second best, or rather second worst, if reports are reliable, for they say Alex was pretty badly used up.” It’s interesting that at just 20 years of age, Bill was already “well known.” It’s unsurprising, however, that he could take care of himself, as it’s apparent from few the existing photographs that he was a big man, physically imposing for his era – easily more than six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds.[3]

Young Bill must have been something of a scrapper (which may partly account for his notoriety). We also know that he later worked as a doorman or bouncer for at least one pool-room and one saloon.[4]

In 1886, young Bill married Elizabeth Virginia at Simpson M.E., a church his father helped found and in which Bill remained very active. The Turners had two children, daughter Minnie[5], born in 1886, and son William, born in 1888.

Bill Turner was apparently also active in local sandlot baseball, even as his notoriety was increasing. On October 3, 1887, the Intelligencer reported: “The game of ball played at Island Park Saturday by the Wheelings and the Keystones, of Pittsburgh, an alleged crack colored club, was won by the home nine by a score of 12 to 6. It was a funny game, and those who witnessed it had many a laugh over its amusing features. Major Bill Turner, a somewhat noted colored celebrity, umpired with a stentorian voice and an agility that was marvelous. The home team very foolishly put Sol White[6] in to pitch, in the eighth, and the Pittsburghers who had not been able to make even scratch hits off Morrison, pounded him for runs in a fast and furious manner. There was more kicking than has been seen on the grounds the entire season; but in a game such as this one was, the kicking but added to the amusement.”

Another baseball reference from the April 24, 1896 Intelligencer proclaimed that the amateur Col. Bill Turner baseball club defeated the Green B. Jefferson team at the old fair grounds by a score of 26 to 10. And from May 6, 1896, the “Hotel Waiter’s baseball club…challenge Col. Bill Turner’s team for a game this week.” We know from his obituary that Mr. Turner was “familiarly known throughout the city” as “Colonel Bill.”

Emancipation Day and More

In addition to baseball, Bill was also active in Republican politics. In September 1891, for example, Bill Turner’s quartet sang during the big Emancipation Day celebration at the fair grounds on the Island and later at Turner Hall.[7] Seven years later at the 1898 Emancipation Day an “elegant programme of athletic sports” was planned for the fair grounds. “Bicycle races, wheelbarrow races, fat men’s races, catching the greasy pig, etc.,” were held. The bicycle races were “open to colored riders,” and William Turner managed the athletic events. Many years later, Bill was selected as a delegate by Governor Hatfield to represent “the colored people of” West Virginia and Wheeling in the big 50th anniversary celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation held in New York City in 1913 (Clarksburg Daily Telegram, Oct. 4, 1913).

Also in 1892, Bill Turner’s quartet was back to sing a number of “appropriate airs,” including ‘Harrison is the Man’[8] for the staff at the Intelligencer. “The boys sing well,” the newspaper reported on June 11. “This quartette, it is to be hoped, will be heard often in the opening campaign.” In October 1892, officers of the marching Clubs for the William McKinley[9] parade selected Bill Turner as one of the aides. Eight years later, Turner attended the State League of Republican Clubs gathering in Parkersburg as a representative from Wheeling.

Bill was also active in black fraternal societies. In 1892, he was one of the “young colored people” who met to organize the Magnolia Social Club, whose mission was to “give social entertainments.” He was a charter member the Wheeling chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police and a charter member of Lodge No. 74 of the National Independent Benevolent Protective Order “Colored Elks,” for whom he was serving as “Grand Esquire” when he died.

It seems he was also active in the “Plumed Knights,” probably the black order of the Knights of Pythias, as a drummer.[10] “The Plumed Knights’ colored drum corps,” said the Intell., “[was] headed by that paragon of grace and agility, Drum-Major Bill Turner…” In 1900, his drum corps participated in a  “Wood-Sawing contest” at the “Grocers’ Day Outing,” an annual picnic for retail grocers at Mozart Park. At the same event, Bill also led the professional cakewalk on the dance floor of the pavilion, and “all the colored artists of Wheeling and surrounding towns being listed and the $10 prize will result in the best foot being put forward.”

Even before he was hired as a Wheeling police officer, Bill Turner was performing heroic deeds. As the Dec. 6, 1889 Intell. reported: “Two men poured gin on a sleeping man and lit him on fire at Jim Hunt’s barber shop at Chapline and 16th. He started to run about the shop vainly endeavoring to beat down the flames that were eating their way into his breast and causing him the most intense pain, and would probably have burned to death had not Bill Turner, a well known young colored man who happened to be in the shop, knocked Robinson down and smothered the flames with a heavy overcoat.”[11]

Officer Bill Turner, Wheeling Police

Just before being hired as a policeman, Bill had been working variously as a laborer, bartender, porter and janitor. He was manager of a poolroom owned by Robert Clark for several years, and even opened a barbershop on 11th Street. He started working for the city of Wheeling at the “artificial gas-plant” on 18th Street, then became a janitor at the city-county building.

His first foray into police work began under Captain Bentz. On August 12, 1899 the Intell. Reported: “Officer William Turner donned his helmet last night and went on duty in the Second Ward for the first time. ‘Bill’ makes a brave appearance in his police togs.”

We don’t know exactly why he was hired. We do know he was something of a local celebrity who clearly became familiar to the police while working at City Hall. Perhaps Captain Bentz wanted someone to walk the beat in the African American neighborhood – someone respected and familiar to act as liaison in a segregated city. Whatever the reason, Officer Turner’s early, often heroic, activities garnered some coverage by the press.

On Oct. 16, 1899, Turner “covered himself with glory” arresting a Pittsburgh man hiding in the Second Ward who had been charged with criminally assaulting a fourteen year old girl. On March 22, 1900, he responded when a 35-year-old woman who lived in Alley C “took a dose of sugar of lead with suicidal intent.” When alerted by her friends, Turner called doctors who managed to extract the poison, saving the woman’s life.

William Turner’s first stint as a Wheeling Police Officer apparently lasted only about 3 or 4 years, from 1899 until 1902 or 1903. He lost his position “on the change of administration,” around that time.[12] For nearly a decade, he swallowed his pride and began working again as a bartender or again as a janitor at the city building. It must have been a difficult transition from wearing the uniform and walking the beat to janitorial work in the same building. But Bill persevered, and by 1919, was hired as a police officer again, working in that capacity for another ten years until his death.[13]

Bill Turner was still a working police officer when he was stricken with a “stomach ailment” in early 1928. After battling this “lengthy illness” for eight months, William Alexander Turner died at his home at 114 Twelfth Street (just behind the “Blue Church“) on September 27, 1928 at the age of 62.[14] It was a Thursday evening. After services at the home organized by Kepner Funeral Home, he was buried at Peninsula Cemetery.[15]

The Fraternal Order of Police, Wheeling Lodge No. 38 adopted the following Resolution of sorrow and respect to honor Officer Turner:

“Death again has beckoned and William A. Turner, for 20 years a faithful and conscientious member of the Police Department of Wheeling has followed across the border. His life was marked by loyalty to duty and with friends, by a cheerfulness and optimism that was unmarred by the suffering of illness and by a racial pride that sought to rally always the better qualities of his people.

In the passing of William A. Turner, there has been removed an excellent citizen and a member of Wheeling Lodge No. 38 Fraternal Order of Police, and therefore, be it resolved

That we take this means of expressing our sorrow at the passing of William A. Turner and convey to his family our deepest sympathy…”

In his will, Mr. Turner left his Elk’s charm and diamond horse-shoe pin to his grandson Oliver T. Shannon, his daughter Minnie’s son. He left all else to his wife, Virginia.

Many thanks to the Upper Ohio Valley NAACP and particularly to Mr. Darryl Clausell for providing images, dates, and biographical information.


Notes

[1] According to an image found in a Wheeling Police Pension Fund publication (ca. 1933) and captioned, “Wheeling Police Force in 1908,” an African American man named Alexander Gardner was serving as a police officer that year. Little is known about him and more research is warranted. Wheeling also had a female police officer as early as 1923. The October 5, 1923 Intelligencer published a report headlined, “Wheeling Policewoman Makes Her First Arrest.” Working near the old market on 10th, Officer Minnie Coyle arrested William Lowther on a charge of “annoying a lady on the street” when he asked her is she’d like to have him for company that night. “Perhaps never before in the history of Wheeling,” The Intell. reported, “did an arrest attract so much attention as did the first arrest of Wheeling’s first policewoman.” Several hundred people immediately crowded near the Stone & Thomas store on Market Street where Lowther was arrested, and it was well after 10 PM on a Thursday!

[2] Bill’s younger brother John Turner was born in 1867.

[3] The Intelligencer ran a correction two days later: “It was big Dennis Gardner, instead of Alex, whom young Bill Turner ‘licked the stuffen out of’ the other night. This seems more reasonable.”

[4] But was this the same William Turner? The custom in the city directories of that era (as with the newspapers) was to distinguish listings by race, using terms and stereotypes that are often jarring and offensive to modern eyes. Though a common name, there was only one “colored” William Turner listed in Callin’s Wheeling City Directory for 1887, and he lived at 68-11th Street.

[5] Bill’s daughter, Mrs. Minnie Turner Shannon, still living at her father’s home at 114 12th Street, was interviewed at age 83 for the “Wheeling Bicentennial Edition” of the Wheeling News-Register that ran on June 10, 1969. “Mrs. Shannon…focuses upon her memories of a patrolman father. Mrs. Shannon was reared in Wheeling and recalls that the black community was always ‘where it is now…we have lived in the same house for 50 years.’” Mrs. Shannon graduated from West Virginia State College, and her son, Oliver, was a professor of mathematics.

[6] Sol White, of course, was a highly regarded sandlot player from Bellaire, OH, who, after playing for the Wheeling Green Stockings, distinguished himself as a player, manager, and executive in the Negro Baseball Leagues. The author of “Sol White’s History of Colored Baseball,” he lived long enough to see the color barrier broken by Jackie Robinson.

[7] As a reminder of Jim Crow’s impact even on high profile events drawing people from all over the country, the Intell. reported: “The hotels that will accommodate Afro-Americans are as follows: Hotel Windsor, St. Charles, Ohio River house, Old Home, Mr. Hearn, under the Grand Opera House, and Lasch’s hotel.”

[8] Republican Benjamin Harrison would lose to Democrat Grover Cleveland who had his own unfortunate Wheeling connection.

[9] Then governor of Ohio, William McKinley was in town to campaign for Benjamin Harrison.

[10] In November 1888, for example, Turner participated in a Belva Lockwood parade. He was drum major of the plumed Knight’s drum corps. “The chief marshal was mounted on a horse and his staff on-a bucking mule, which made lots of fun. Brooms, umbrellas, and parasols, of all sizes and shapes, ages and colors, tin horns, and lots of other things, were carried. It was a grotesque carnival, about as lacking in organization as a Democratic procession, but there was more enthusiasm about it. The streets were about as well filled with people as on the occasion of any parade made this campaign and everybody was jolly and had lots of fun.”

[11] Explanation in the newspaper: “In a number of saloons it is the custom to get rid of loafers or “sleepers” by giving them the “leg-burn” that is putting a few drops of gin on the leg of their pants and then firing it. This is supposed to be what It was proposed to practice on Robinson, but too much of the liquid was poured on, and besides a close-fitting cotton undershirt is an entirely different thing to pour the stuff on and then light than a heavy pair of pants.”

[12] The 1898 Callin’s listed a Wm. A Turner, working at the City Gas Works who lived at 1034 Eoff Street. The 1901 edition listed him as a “Deputy Sergeant,” in 1903, a “Laborer,” in 1904 a “Clerk for Robert Clark,” in 1909 a “Janitor at the Court Theatre” and in 1911 a “Janitor at City Hall,” all at the same Eoff Street address.

[13] Although it’s possible to find references to Officer Bill Turner in the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, circa 1899-1900, in the searchable database offered online by the Library of Congress, that database currently ends at 1900 making it virtually impossible, without specific dates, to find such references during Turner’s service from 1919 through 1927. When those newspaper editions are digitized and searchable we will inevitably learn much more about Officer Turner.

[14] Two police officers actually died that day. The other was officer James William Haberfield. Both were members of Wheeling Lodge No. 38.

[15] Efforts to locate his tombstone have so far been unsuccessful.


Sources

Callin’s Wheeling City Directory, 1865-1928

Clarksburg Daily Telegram, Oct. 4, 1913

U.S. Federal Census: 1870, 1880, 1900, and 1920.

West Virginia Wills and Probate Records, 1724-1978.

Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, various editions, 1865-1928.

Wheeling News-Register, various editions, 1865-1928, and June 10, 1969.

 


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