James Milton Turner was a significant leader in the areas of African American education, civil rights, and foreign diplomacy during the decades after the Civil War.Turner was born into slavery in St. Louis County in either 1839 or 1840, James Milton Turner and his mother, Hannah, were freed in 1843. His father, John Turner, was a free black who put on horse shoes. During the late 1840s and early 1850s, young James was educated in secret schools in the St. Louis area. An 1847 Missouri law prohibited teaching blacks.
After attending Oberlin College in Ohio, Turner returned to St. Louis in the late 1850s. He worked as a porter until the Civil War began. During the conflict, he acted as a body servant for Madison Miller, a Union colonel.
In 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Turner as the U.S. minister to Liberia, making him the first African American to hold that position. While serving in Liberia, Turner became convinced that African Americans should not return to Africa in large numbers. He did not believe they would be able to adapt to the climate. However, there were other blacks who did not agree. When he returned from Liberia in 1878, his influence began to decline. Like many other black leaders of the time, his status as an educated black alienated him from the black community.
He helped provide relief for blacks fleeing the South. Later he became an advocate for former black slaves of the Cherokee who had land and oil claims in the Oklahoma Indian Territory. About a month after being injured in a tank-car explosion, James Milton Turner died from blood poisoning on November 1, 1915.