Alberta Banner Turner (1909 - 2008)

by Kelli Vaughn, York University

Alberta Banner Turner is a name that should be familiar. A snapshot of her professional history was included in Robert Val Guthrie’s seminal work Even the Rat was White (1976) on the history of black psychologists. Turner was technically the third black woman to receive a doctorate in psychology from a U.S. institution (Ohio State, 1937). The short biography provided by Guthrie is enlightening but incomplete. While he does give us a brief glimpse of Turner’s  applied work,  little attention is paid to her advocacy and service to the community at large. In fact, Alberta Turner herself noted in a 1999 interview that she would much rather be known as an “advocate for equal rights” than for her scholarly endeavors (Turner, as cited in Williams, 2008).

It is not surprising that Turner would be interested in asserting her record as an advocate. Indeed she had been active in the civil rights struggle at the local level since her high school days. At the age of 16, she attempted to challenge racial segregation by participating in a whites-only prom.  By 1938, after graduating with her PhD from Ohio State University, she and several friends attempted to enter a local whites-only theater in Ohio (Columbus Palace, 1938; Columbus Citizens, 1938). When they were refused entry, Turner and another woman filed a warrant for the manager’s arrest. Their suit would be successful and was later followed up with similar actions at local public venues in Columbus (Seagall, 2002). By the 1940’s, Turner had broadened her advocacy to include education for the African- American community.  She conducted consumer education courses for soldiers and their wives on such issues as black investment markets, credit unions, and insurance (Consumer, 1943; Poindexter, 1943). She also provided public lectures, including one in 1946 on the history of and support for inter-race relations (i.e., dating and marriage; Meredith, 1946).

Turner was also involved with national advocacy groups. She was the national program director for The Links organization and founding president of its Columbus chapter (1950). The Links continues today as a group that supports the aspirations of black women in civic, cultural, and educational endeavors. An announcement for Turner’s 1999 distinguished service award from Ohio State also notes that she was “instrumental in establishing the Prelude Scholarship and Recognition Program, a partnership of Links, Ohio State and the Columbus Public Schools to honor minority students.” In the early 1940s, Turner was also the fourth national president of Jack and Jill of America (Climbing, 1997), one of the oldest organizations supporting African-American children in the U.S. (Jack and Jill, 1947). She maintained some form of affiliation with both programs throughout her lifetime (Seagall, 2002).

This is not to say that Alberta Banner Turner was not an active psychologist. Rather her advocacy was as apparent in her professional work as it was in her community service.  As Guthrie noted, Turner worked for the Ohio Bureau of Juvenile Affairs/Ohio Youth Commission for over 27 years.  She began as a clinician and retired as the director of research. During her years with the commission, Turner specialized in research on and treatments for juvenile delinquents, including the operation of a mobile clinic. She stated that during this time she, on occasion, found herself riding around with “some of the toughest gang leaders in the country” (Seagall, 2002, p. 5).  During this same period she worked with adolescents at the Marysville Reformatory for Women and taught at Ohio State University. After her retirement from the Ohio Youth Commission, Turner was the only African-American woman and psychologist appointed to the Ohio Criminal Justice Supervisory Commission. She also served on the National Advisory Council of Vocational Rehabilitation (Guthrie, 1976; Seagall, 2002; Gilligan, 1971; Five Receive, 1999).

Sadly, Alberta Banner Turner passed away January 31, 2008, in her home in Hilo, Hawai’i, with little notice from the psychological community at large (Obituary, 2008). In her 98 years of life she consistently worked towards greater racial equality, support for future generations of African-Americans, and reform for adolescents. In her personal life she raised two children, a son John and a daughter Kay and maintained a marriage of 50+ years.  Her husband John passed in 1992 and her daughter Kay passed only 10 months after Turner.  Friends and family noted in an online guestbook following her death that Turner was an avid ping-pong player and storyteller (Guestbook, 2008). Several posters also noted her piano playing, and her appreciation of the early 1900’s ragtime compositions of Scott Joplin.  One former colleague stated, “Dr. Turner approached life the way she played ping-pong - with adept skill, a relentless passion and good humor” (Guestbook, 2008, p. 2).

In psychology today, when we often find ourselves discussing the complexities of intersectionality, application vs. science, and advocacy vs. scholarship; it seems particularly important that we take notice and better attempt to understand the lives and contributions of psychologists like Alberta Banner Turner. Those women of the past who, like Turner, offer examples of the ways in which we can be both scholar and activist - but perhaps most importantly, true advocates for equality within our workplaces and communities - are powerful examples indeed.

References

Benjamin, L. T., Henry, K. D., & Mcmahon, L. R. (2005).  Inez Beverly Prosser and the education of African Americans. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 41. 43-62. doi:10.1002/jhbs.20058

Climbing new hills (1997, Oct). Ebony, 52, 44-45.

Columbus Citizens Fight for Civil Rights (1938, June 27). Atlanta Daily World, 1.

Columbus Palace Theater Bars Popular Race Couple (1938, May 21). Chicago Defender, 18. 

Consumer education group studies credit unions (1943, May 18). Cleveland Call and Post  1-B

Five receive special commencement honors at Ohio State. (1999, August 24). Ohio State News. Retrieved from http://www.osu.edu/news/releases/99-08 24_Commencement _Honors_for _Five.html

Gilligan Names Crime Commission (1971, Oct 23). Cleveland Call and Post, 1B.

Guestbook (2008). Alberta B. Turner. Retieved from http://www.legacy.com/guestbook/ dispatch/guestbook.aspx?n=alberta-turner&pid=102341560&cid=full

Guthrie, R. V. (1976). Even the rat was white: A historical view of psychology. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Holliday, B. G. (2009). The history and visions of African American psychology: Multiple pathways to place, space, and authority. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15. 317-337 doi:10.1037/a0016971

Jack and Jill Clubs to Meet at Columbus, Ohio (1947, April 05). Chicago Defender, 16.

Meredith, F. D. (1946, Feb 23) “If love is strong it will surmount and obstacle,” Ohio State University professor says of inter-race relations. Cleveland Call and Post, 12B.

Obituary (2008, Feb 1). Alberta B. Turner. The Columbus Dispatcher.

Poindexter recreational center news. (1943, March 13). Cleveland Call and Post, 6-B.

Seagall, G. (2002, Summer). Psyched for success: At 92, Columbus woman still blazes trails. The ABPP Specialist. 5,18 (Reprinted from The Plain Dealer, Cleveland Ohio, March 13, 2002)

Williams, S. (2008, Feb 1). Activist took on racial barriers. The Columbus dispatch. 03B.

Note: Turner is occasionally credited as being the first black woman to receive a doctorate in general psychology. This is because Inez Prosser received her degree in 1933 from a department of education and Ruth Howard graduated in 1934 from a specialized child development program. That said, most psychologist-historians concede that Turner is the third to receive a degree in the area. For more information on this debate, see Benjamin, Henry, & Mcmahon, 2005; Guthrie, 1976; Holliday, 2009.