The Trailblazing Life of J.L. Turner Sr., One of Texas' First Black Attorneys

J.L. Turner Sr. may not be remembered as a civil rights icon, but his successful career spoke volumes during the days of Jim Crow.
J.L. Turner Sr. may not be remembered as a civil rights icon, but his successful career spoke volumes during the days of Jim Crow.
Photo provided by George Keaton

The Dallas County Courthouse filled with African American luminaries on April 18, 1921. Something special was going to happen, and the assembled group was there to show support as public testimony decided the fate of two children. 

On a Saturday evening in early April, firefighting trucks from two stations responded to an alarm. The pair of them collided at Harwood and Bryan streets, killing a captain and injuring a handful of firefighters who had been rushing to what turned out to be a false alarm. Officials suspected a hoax and scooped up two black children, Homer Dyson and Phillip Sunday Jr., who were near the red fire box where the alarm originated. The pair confessed under questioning. Dyson was 8 years old, Phillip’s age about the same.

These were not urchins, but children of prominent Dallas African Americans. Homer’s father was Dr. A.H. Dyson, a respected dentist. Phillip Sunday Sr. was a pharmacist who would one day be an instrumental civic leader. The stature of these children’s families brought the black community to the courthouse.

And they had a top-notch lawyer to represent the defense: J.L. Turner, one of the first African American attorneys to practice in Texas. 

He didn’t often do this — real estate and probate would always be his main focus — but like many attorneys of the age, he practiced criminal law as well. And these children belonged to his economic equals, his neighbors, his friends, his only real peers in the city. This wasn't just another job for him. In turn, his clients must have trusted his skills implicitly.  

The Dallas Express, a weekly newspaper owned and operated by African Americans that started printing in 1898, was the only reliable repository of black community news of the era. The paper covered the “unusual” events of the day, which reveal that Turner helped keep the black children from being railroaded in a white justice system.

The judge assigned the case never bothered to show up, leaving the session in the hands of a juvenile court officer. This officer, with Turner on hand to represent the children, heard the disturbing particulars. “Evidence was disclosed by the lads’ testimony that a former confession had been made under the cruel whip and at gunpoint,” the article reads.

After hearing how police bullied confessions from the children, Turner steered the court to hear the other flaws in the case. He had a star witness in 10-year-old Willie Owens.

Owens and 12-year-old Venton Vault were passing out church fliers at the corner of Flora and Leonard streets when firefighters heard the alarm. Owens told the courtroom that he saw Vault put his hands on the alarm box there, and city officials later said crossed wires could have led to the simultaneous dispatch of both vehicles.

“This startling evidence released all doubt to the Dyson and Sunday boys,” the newspaper account reads. “They were exonerated and the crowd left for their homes.”

It was a fleeting moment of justice. Hard days of Jim Crow laws and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan lay ahead for Dallas. But despite his position, Turner was not destined to be front and center in the fight. His enormously successful, but typically quiet, career didn’t put him in the pantheon of local African American civil rights leaders.  

The defense of the Dyson and Sunday boys may be a rare public example of Turner's influence. Most of his work was done at a wooden desk, scrawling legal research on a pad, or at the courthouse filing paperwork to facilitate land deals. But these actions, which may seem banal, were quietly revolutionary. And profitable. 

He was a different type of civic leader — the capable, educated professional whose success alone speaks volumes. And his influence among prominent African Americans of his day and the generations that followed has been understated. Examining his trail of court documents, newspaper articles and personal correspondences shows that Turner didn't just prosper in Dallas; he shaped the city during an era of extreme racial tension.  

George Keaton Jr. walks into the living room of his two-story Oak Cliff house holding a cardboard box and sets it on a floral-patterned ottoman. There's a blotchy water stain in one corner of the box. With another trip to his garage, he brings out a large plastic bin stuffed with paperwork in binders and folders. His living room now contains the largest trove of paperwork and documents of J.L. Turner, Keaton’s granduncle.

“There were boxes and boxes, case files and page after page of [legal] citations,” Keaton says. “I couldn’t store all of it, there’s only so much space. So I skimmed the cases and kept the ones with names I recognized.”

It’s fortunate that Keaton is the one who inherited the paperwork. He’s the founder of Remembering Black Dallas, a local group that conducts tours and speaking engagements to help preserve otherwise forgotten histories of the city. One of his pleas is to “preserve the paper” that documents the lives of black residents.

The typewritten pages of Turner's legal files are brittle with age and so thin that light passes cleanly through them. The handwritten notes — extensive lists of precedents and case law that the attorney plucked from his vast legal library — are in better shape.

These are the remains of a legendary legal career. Turner, born in Dallas as the son of a freed slave, hung his shingle in the city in 1898. Over the course of a 55-year span, he became a pioneering attorney and an icon for Dallas’ African American community. Yet he’s not well known today; no one has written his biography, and there are few mentions of his court appearances in contemporary African American newspapers. “They were very private people,"  Keaton says. "Maybe that’s why nobody has written much about them.”

Turner’s reputation is not that of a civil rights hero, and for that reason his name has faded from history. He would support his community, for example donating to the Dickson Colored Orphanage, but he didn’t make vocal or legal demands for racial equality as some other lawyers of his age did. “He was not much of a crusader,” says historian Darwin Payne, SMU professor emeritus and author of books about Texas legal history. 

Turner's peers recognized his stature, though. In the plastic bin are envelopes of condolence cards from 1951, preserved in a 5-inch thick binder under plastic sheets. The condolence envelopes read like a roster of Dallas’ African American luminaries, including doctors, dentists and fellow attorneys. White members of the legal world also wrote, including federal Judge W.M. Taylor, who called him “an able lawyer and a fine man.”

J.L. Turner’s triumphs and tragedies have faded like his court papers. But a closer examination of this collection of family heirlooms and salvaged public records reveals the man of the era. They tell a story of perseverance in the face of his tragically wounded family and equally wounded, split city.

John Lewis Turner may have been born in Dallas, but he chose the city to be his home.  His family lived on a farm in Inwood, which would eventually become incorporated into the city and called North Dallas on July 3, 1869.

Information about his father, Benjamin Franklin Turner, is scant, but his relatives had been in North Texas since the 1860s. “My great-grandfather, Taylor Turner, was in Texas by the age of 12 and is listed as property in the will of Jesse Turner, dated 1862,” Keaton says. “I can only assume that B.F. Turner was from the same family.”

After graduating high school in Dallas, J.L. Turner left Dallas County to attend Wiley College in Marshall. The university hadn’t been around long when Turner arrived. A Methodist Episcopal bishop named Isaac Wiley founded the school in 1873, making it one of the first predominantly black colleges outside the East Coast, and it was only 150 miles or so west of the farm. It still exists, attended by 1,400 students and known for its ferocious debate team.

Inspired by his experience at Wiley, Turner kept moving. His eyes were fixed on a place in Chicago offering a unique education for young black men and women — Kent Law School. A pair of judges, Thomas Moran and Joseph Bailey, founded the law school to offer legal degrees to African Americans in 1888.  

The elder Turner must have been amazed and skeptical of the opportunities available to his child. Payne, who wrote two seminal books on Dallas legal history, As Old as Dallas Itself and Quest for Justice, says that his father harbored some doubts over the ability of a black man to rise in post-Civil War America. “You can go on up there to study law, but when you get back the plow will be waiting for you,” Payne relates the father’s parting advice, as told to him by Turner’s friends.

Turner spent a couple years in Chicago practicing law before returning to Texas in 1898. Somewhere along the way he earned money teaching. It was an eye-opener for him and a change from the work he was used to doing. His first check “was the most money that I had ever made at such a short time without doing manual labor,” he reminisced in a letter to his daughter. “I gave part of it to my father and the rest I had to use to pay a bill. My father needed it so much and money didn’t come to him but once per year and then it came in small sums.”

The letter later seems to state a key lesson of his childhood: “I want you all to save money so that you will be able to meet life without going through so many difficulties like I have gone through.”

In 1898, after graduating and working at a law firm in Chicago, Turner decided to come home. There seemed to be no better place in the country than Dallas to stake his claim.

In 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson. The decision of the case, against a mixed-race man who sat in a whites-only car in Louisiana, legitimized state laws establishing racial segregation in public institutions. And it laid the groundwork for more. This ruling would become the foundation on which Jim Crow laws would be built.

Dallas was a hot destination for African Americans around the turn of the century. Business was booming as the city entered its industrial period, and this attracted whites and blacks alike. By 1890 the population was 38,000 — making it the biggest city in Texas — and the county tallied 67,000.

With all this action, Dallas became a lawyer’s dream. By the 1890s there were 175 of them in town, setting up offices in buildings around the newly built courthouse. The previous courthouse had burned down, and builders constructed the new one from blue granite and red sandstone.

The 29-year-old J.L. Turner returned to Dallas under the tutelage of the city’s first African American attorney, Joseph E. Wiley. Wiley had been in business since 1885, setting up offices in the central nervous center of North Texas’ legal work. An 1898 city directory lists Turner and Wiley as partners at 155 Main St., in a building across the street from the big red courthouse. “It was a good old boy network in the courthouse and everyone knew each other,” Payne says. “It must have been very hard to break in. There were black teachers and doctors, and this was basically accepted. But there was only a handful of black attorneys working in a white judicial system.”

Wiley would go on to invest in a cotton mill and organized the Colored Fair and Tri-Centennial Exposition. His role as a pioneering entrepreneur in Dallas eclipsed his start as a lawyer. Turner would practice law his entire life.

The bread-and-butter for most attorneys, white or black, was real estate and probate law. Property deals and wills needed to be drafted and, occasionally, fought over. Surviving case files provide a flavor of the work. It was demanding and technical. Before property could be sold, an attorney had to examine the titles and ensure that no one could raise any legal objections. That meant examining liens, surveys and deeds. (One 1913 document stated his fee for a routine examination was $10, the equivalent of $236 in 2016.) He took occasional criminal cases and, as he would through his career, did legal work for his circle of doctors, dentists and well-heeled friends. For example, his files contain a personal injury suit filed on behalf of Dr. L.G. Pinkston, who sued the East Texas Motor Freight Co. after a truck driving on the wrong side of the road hit the doctor’s vehicle.

There was a demand for this work from the black community, and they could afford to pay. Black-owned businesses and homes lay scattered across the city in 1910. (Residential segregation would not become official in Dallas until 1921.) Dallas County also held black clients with demands for a skilled property attorney.

There was a black upper and middle class growing that provided Turner with a steady client base. The 1911 Business and Professional Directory of Colored Persons in Dallas contains listings of black-owned businesses, of which there were many. The preface gives a thumbnail sketch of the community during the city’s industrial boom. "The Dallas Negro, catching the spirit of the times, has gone forth into the marts of trade and sought, with more or less success, to win a place and to make himself and his race a potent factor in the commercial life of his city," the directory reads.

But tightening segregation and racism obscured this rosy outlook. Payne notes that court documents show that judges always heard cases brought by African American lawyers at the end of the docket, after white attorneys had finished. Payne interviewed Louis Bedford’s widow, who respected the perseverance Turner demonstrated when faced with slights and disrespect. She said that court officials, like many others, routinely called him “boy.”

Doubts over Turner’s abilities certainly came from the court and his legal peers, but also came from potential clients. “African Americans would prefer to have a white attorney,” Payne notes. “If they could afford one.”

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Professional competence and attention to appearance must have been paramount for his business. And Turner dressed the part, devoting money to his wardrobe and, eventually, automobiles to cruise Dallas’ unpaved streets. Keaton says this is partially a way to project dignity. “Most African Americans, even those who worked as maids, would dress up to go outside,” he says. “There was some importance to looking your best, especially those of any means.”

Perhaps the only way to gain perspective on the atmosphere of Dallas that Turner endured is to look at a downtown lynching of Allen Brooks in 1910. A mob pushed past guards and judges to throw an African American man, accused of child rape and awaiting trial, from a window with a rope around his neck. After that, the throng dragged his probably lifeless body through the streets, stabbed him, and hung his body from an arch. Images of the atrocity and its estimated 3,000 witnesses would later grace a postcard.

At the time, Turner’s office was located across the street from the courthouse. It’s not known if he witnessed this attack in person, but it really doesn’t matter. The message was clear. “The courthouse is a place where justice is meted,” Payne says. “But not for blacks.”

But to be a lawyer, you needed an office downtown, and Turner held fast. Turner opened his own office at 614 ½ Commerce St., the current location of the George Allen Sr. Courts Building, and still within sight of the courthouse.

The boom in population and commerce supplied a steady stream of work. His entire career would be spent enabling African American clients to utilize the justice system. His focus was civil law, and it made him wealthy. His life seemed to be going as planned, until a tragedy struck.

A noise woke up J.L. Turner at 2 a.m, and he immediately thought to grab his gun. He was alone — his wife had been sick for two weeks, and she was sleeping in a separate room in his home at 1821 Allen St.

He heard it again, coming from the back porch. He stepped out of bed, grabbed a revolver, and turned his attention to the window where the noise originated. He glimpsed a shadow through the glass and shot once. The figure collapsed with a shout — the cry of a woman. Turner realized in horror that he had shot his wife.

The first news story about the shooting appeared on May 31, 1919, just two days after the Thursday morning tragedy. It described the victim, Annie Mae Turner, as “one of Dallas’ most respected young women.”

Annie Mae Cates, like her future husband, grew up in Dallas. There aren’t many surviving documents that shed light on her, except for a few photos and a report she wrote in 1901 while she was a student at the Colored High School in North Dallas.

The multi-page report is a thoughtful examination of English and American literature. She wrote eloquently about Shakespeare, with Victorian poets, chaste lovers and other characters neatly drawn throughout. She dedicated “this little volume” to her mother, “who has watched over me since my helpless infancy.”

Today, no one knows for certain whether the Cates and Turner families knew each other in (current) North Dallas or how the pair met and married. But by 1919 the couple had three children — two daughters,
Minnie and Bernadine, and a son, J.L. Turner Jr.

An undated photo shows the couple in formal poses, dressed in fine clothes of the era and unsmiling. J.L. Turner is seated, wearing a sharp suit and bow tie, his short-cropped hair and mustache carefully groomed. Even across the span of years, his shoes gleam from a thorough shine. But Annie Mae steals the photo, wearing a flowing white dress and an enormous, wide-brimmed hat adorned with large feathers. Between them, one hand on his shoulder and her mother’s supporting hand on her back, is young Bernadine.

Turner’s wife used her education and, despite the wealth of her husband, worked. She taught at the Colored High School that she attended. The facility, built in 1892, would in 1922 move to a new building and be renamed the Booker T. Washington High School, but Annie Mae Turner never lived to see that happen.

The Dallas Express article describes a hectic scene the night of the shooting. Turner lived near, and befriended, prominent African American medical professionals. One neighbor, dentist G.W. White, heard the shot and the screams, “rushed over and found Mrs. Turner seriously wounded.” More doctors were summoned, including close family friend W.R. McMillan.

The bullet entered her side and punched through her liver. She languished for several weeks before dying. A photo of her Allen Street wake shows a beautiful woman, hands crossed over a white dress, lying in an open casket. A thick bed of flowers surrounds the coffin.

The newspaper articles never hint at foul play, but rumors must have flown. One survived to reach George Keaton’s ears. F.E. White claimed she helped take care of the Turner children after Annie Mae’s death. She told Keaton that the story of an accident was bogus. “She said he meant to shoot her,” Keaton says. “I really don’t see it, but I suppose some people must have been talking.” 

The lack of interest in solving black homicides seems to have hurt Turner’s reputation. Rumors can thrive, even after more than 80 years, without a reasonable inquiry. “Police didn’t investigate black on black crime, or white on black for that matter,” Keaton says. “They just said, there’s another one gone.”

In the many surviving letters sent between the daughters and J.L. Turner, Annie Mae’s name is never mentioned, but the family kept her in mind. “Thanks for your telegram on Mother’s Day,” he wrote to Minnie in 1936. “Also had greetings from Brother [J.L. Turner Jr.] and Bernadine.”

Turner was successful and wealthy, but the pressure of raising a family alone fell to him. His understated letters reveal a strong bond between himself and his three children, as often happens in families that lose a spouse. He never remarried.

A few months after Turner argued the case of the two boys in 1921, a dozen masked men kidnapped Alexander Johnson. He worked as a black bellhop at the downtown Adolphus Hotel, and had boasted that he had sex with white guests. His captors whipped him, scorched KKK on his forehead and told him to get out of town. It was a frightening re-emergence of a group rooted in Reconstruction, the Ku Klux Klan.

The KKK disbanded in 1869, the year Turner was born, but the group had resurfaced and reorganized. Dallas Klan No. 66 was established in 1920, and within a few years 13,000 Dallas residents signed up. The roster included law enforcement and other public officials. One of the perpetrators of the Johnson attack, the dentist Hiram Wesley Evans, eventually rose to become the KKK’s national leader, the “Imperial Wizard.”

A July 6 article in the Fort Worth Star Telegram sums up the local law enforcement's attitude about the maiming. “As I understand the case, the negro was guilty of doing something he should not have done,” said Sheriff Dan Hartson. “The men who attacked the negro were good citizens — I feel convinced — and I am satisfied with their treatment of him. He no doubt deserved it.”

The officials who worked in the courthouse — those who Turner had to walk past and even argue cases with — were not shy about their positions. “If enough people hear of this, it may do some good,” Judge T.A. York, who the article says presides over the County Court, told the Star Telegram. Judge Robert Seay is also quoted, saying, “Maybe it will be a lesson. It is time something like this was done with cases of this kind.”

Given these dangers, it’s understandable why Turner would take a quiet approach to the law. Payne says he received threats based on his race, and surmises that is one reason he kept a weapon in his bedroom.

But other attorneys loudly advocated for equal rights, like Ammon S. Wells. He co-founded the Dallas chapter of the NAACP in 1918 and in 1935 became one of the first African Americans to run for public office. (He lost.) In the 1930s, other prominent attorneys in the city ran for school board positions and became the voice of African Americans’ protests to sympathetic Republican politicians. Since Democrats ran Dallas County, not much could be done, but these local attorneys were pushing the system. 

The lens of civil rights history is typically focused on the most public people involved: the politicians, the firebrands, those who agitate loudly for change and the victims of injustice. True, these people take great risks and suffer, but to look only at them as avatars of progress ignores the legion of entrepreneurs and business professionals who found success in a dangerously divided system. In that company, J.L. Turner represents the counter to anyone — from his father to the KKK — who would argue that African Americans are incapable. His success is the valuable rebuttal.

But there is a human element as well — something else often ignored when evaluating historical figures.   Keaton sees a measure of protectiveness toward his family in Turner’s career. “His wife had died and he was taking care of his children on his own,” he says. “If anything happened to him, there wasn’t anybody else to take care of them. “

Ultimately, his children would be in place to take advantage of the progress of the age and, prepared with their father’s money and the education it afforded, also advance the cause of civil rights. 

In mid-January 1936, J.L. Turner wrote a letter to his daughter, Minnie, who was staying in New York City at the home of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Powell, whose son would become an influential congressman, had connections to various black colleges, and Bernadine was in town to take master's degree courses that were not offered in Texas.

Turner’s children had all left Dallas, and if he was suffering from empty nest syndrome it manifested subtly. “I am enjoying the best of health,” he wrote. “The only thing is when I eat too much and retire too early, but this is a small matter. I can avoid this by being more considerate in both respects.”

He signed off in his typical way: “Bye-Bye, Daddy.”

The Turner family had a telephone and used it to keep in touch, but the letters continued. Preserved by Keaton, dozens of correspondences and a handful of faded photos reveal a glimpse of his family life.

Turner brought up his children to value travel and used his car as a way to expand their horizons and embolden them to explore. “They took vacations often,” Keaton says. One surviving photo shows the family at Turner Falls, Oklahoma. Another shows the elder Turner seated in a car, with a 10-year-old (or so) Junior Turner standing in a full suit and long coat, hat in hand, looking like he’s ready for a night out at the Cotton Club instead of a road trip.

The Turner children had the courage to travel, and the means. “Photos like this tell me he was wealthy,” Keaton says. “And he always had a nice car.”

Someone of Turner’s income level would certainly be a car owner. It was a status symbol but one many people enjoyed. In fact, North Texas was car-happy. An issue of Editor and Publisher from December 1920 discusses auto ownership as “a barometer of prosperity.” It states there were nearly 100,000 registered automobiles in and around Dallas in 1920. For context, the overall population of Dallas in 1920 was 159,000.

Turner’s efforts to widen his children’s horizons took root, and he watched his family move away to pursue their respective educations. “I am certainly pleased with your decision as to attending school to further your education. I am for anything that will tend to improve and prepare you all for life,” he wrote Minnie in 1938. “I am certain that the requirements will be much greater that face you all … than when I came along.

“You are living in and will live in a different age.”

Some loneliness creeps through the words. Although he had relatives in town, Turner had his own private life. One letter describes a Thanksgiving spent alone eating at the Moorland YMCA. (The facility was a vital hub of African American services and activities.)

His children fretted over him, including his son, whom Turner Sr. always called Brother in letters. “Had a telephone call with Brother last night,” he wrote. “He did not like the idea that I want all of you to attend school at the same time in the incoming year, thinks I should not be left alone. This is a nice idea … but I can be left alone while I am in good health.”

The trio of children graduated from college. Bernadine Turner returned to town and worked as a teacher at Dallas ISD. Minnie became an instructor at Texas Southern University in Houston. “He trusted that they have a great amount of judgment,” Keaton says. “They were close and you can tell the fondness was there, from the letters.”

Indeed, there are phrases and themes that emerge, note after note. One, the patriarch was always offering money, especially when the children were not asking for it. “Enclosed is a check, use it if needed,” he’d type. Another phrase that repeats is “you can best judge.” Turner’s biggest stated fear was that the children would get sick, especially if they were in northern climates, and several times he consulted his medical friends in Dallas to recommend treatments.

John L. Turner Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps. He graduated from Bishop College in 1936 and did graduate work at the University of Michigan. He obtained a law degree from his father’s alma mater, Kent School of Law, in 1941, and immediately enlisted in the Army. He was eventually promoted to first lieutenant and served as a trial judge advocate. 

After leaving the army, Turner Jr. also returned to town and established Turner & Turner with his father. The pair worked at the office on Commerce Street, and years later moved to a 760-square-foot office at 1723 Routh St.

There is a photo of the pair in the office among the collection kept by George Keaton. Neither spectacled, suited man is facing the camera — the elder Turner is seated and the younger standing, and both are staring at a book spread open on a large wooden desk. Behind them are volumes of law books, enough to take up an entire wall.

J.L. Turner was certainly a workaholic. At age 82, he was still going to the office every other day. He was known as the oldest practicing African American attorney in Dallas, and he stayed at his house at 1821 Allen St. On December 2, 1951, J.L. Turner Sr. suffered a fatal heart attack at home.

His family buried him next to Annie at White Rock Cemetery, but his body would later be exhumed and moved to Lincoln Cemetery. If there is any doubt over his stature among the African American community, his pallbearers alone show his influence, especially among the most vocal civil rights advocates.

The official pallbearers included several lawyers who would soon wage legal war to desegregate Dallas schools, like Louis Bedford Jr., W. J. Durham and U. S. Tate. The honorary pallbearers have names recognizable from his career, including the influential Dr. Pinkston, the doctor who shared his first office and A.H. Dyson, whose son stood accused in 1919.

The condolence cards poured in to Turner Jr., the family’s new patriarch. One card, written by Joseph McMillan, summed up the mood of many: “We sympathize with you in the loss of your father. We recognize the fact that a leader has fallen.”

Keaton would inherit the law office on Routh Street and operated a florist shop there for years. The city ultimately bought the building, using eminent domain. He kept a metal sign from the office, “J.L. Turner” written in gold paint. In small letters, like an afterthought, are the letters “Jr.” “Seems like his son just added that after his father died,” Keaton said. “No point wasting a good sign.”

Turner Jr. was more directly involved in civil rights law than his father. “African Americans more actively participated in the political processes after the 1950s,” Theodore Law wrote in a 2008 paper for the East Texas Historical Journal. “African Americans in Dallas were no longer willing to ask for a change and wait patiently to see what happened, but to organize for change.”

Junior’s first foray came when he joined a legal team to bring a discrimination suit against Kilgore Junior College in 1952 after the school rejected 11 black high school graduates. These legal maneuverings could have led to the end of their careers — attorneys who incite clients to sue can be accused of barratry, leading to disbarment. The concern was unfair ruination of their livelihoods, since the Dallas Bar Association, which of course didn’t admit blacks, adjudicated these cases.
In 1952, the group of black attorneys established a 12-member Barrister’s Club. Four years later, they renamed the group the J.L. Turner Legal Society. Turner Jr. chaired the group until 1968. 

It still exists, under a slightly new name and without a physical headquarters. The J.L. Turner Legal Association offers scholarships and other support for African American students in pursuing legal professions. Every October, the group holds a fund-raising gala. It’s the only institution in the city that bears his name after the infamous Turner Courts public housing development, built in 1952 and named for him, was torn down in 2009. 

The current head of the organization, Emmanuel U. Obi, says he is a literal beneficiary of Turner’s legacy. He received financial aid from the J.L. Turner Legal Society to attend SMU. “My first two summer jobs as a first year law student were a result of J.L. Turner mentors,” he says.

At a recent memorial for Allen Brooks, the atmosphere that Turner must have endured daily struck Obi in a visceral way. “I can only imagine practicing law in an era when you can literally look out your office window and see a man hanging,” he says. “What he and the others of his era passed down to us is the resilience of the black attorney. They all forged a way for themselves, but also a way for me and everyone else who came after them.”

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