10 Things To Know About Dr. James Turner, Africana Studies Pioneer At Cornell University

Shirley Hawkins
Written by Shirley Hawkins
James Turner Africana
Dr. James Turner, Africana Studies.
Photo: Cornell University Library Digital Collections

In the late 1960s, Black communities began to demand academic programs and funding for African American studies at universities across the country.

Black students at Cornell University seized and occupied the university’s Willard Straight Hall in April 1969 to protest conditions on campus. They demanded the creation of a Black Studies program to make the curriculum more relevant to the interests of African Americans and the country.

The Cornell students had heard gifted young scholar and activist Prof. James Turner articulate his vision of education for liberation at a conference at Howard University. They selected Turner to direct and develop the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. 

James Turner Africana
Dr. James Turner. Photo: Cornell University

The first generation of Africana studies

Dr. Turner and his wife, Janice Turner, came to Ithaca, New York in 1969 at a time when there no Black teachers in the Ithaca City School District, only a handful of Black tenured professors and no courses in African-American history, life, culture or literature.

“We had to begin the process of changing that environment….We were the first generation of Africana studies,” Dr. Turner said. It was particularly important to him, he added, because so few students at that time had ever had the experience of a Black professor.

Dr. Turner coins the phrase ‘Africana Studies’

Dr. Turner aggressively and skillfully began the task of erecting an institution that would mirror the concept of education for liberation. Cornell’s Africana Studies program would become a model for similar departments which sprang up across the country.

As the organizer for Cornell’s Council on African Studies, Turner formed the basis for the university’s interdisciplinary African Studies. 

He initiated the term “Africana Studies” to conceptualize the comprehensive studies of the African diaspora and the three primary global Black communities – Africa, North America, and the Caribbean. The Africana paradigm is now widely adopted by educational programs as the epistemology for the field of Black Studies.    

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Dr. Turner’s Ph.D. was destroyed in a fire at Willard Straight Hall

The Africana Studies and Research Center offered its first classes in the fall of 1969 in its first building at 320 Wait Avenue, after the Willard Straight Hall takeover. On April 1, 1970, the building at 320 Wait Avenue was destroyed by a fire that was presumed to be arson. A number of irreplaceable documents including Turner’s draft Ph.D. dissertation were lost in the blaze.

Dr. Turner became socially conscious at an early age

Dr. Turner´s racial consciousness was forged early in life. The son of what he describes as a “laboring class” family, he grew up in the housing projects in Lower Manhattan, New York. The experience of growing up in a close-knit family struggling to subsist and improve their quality of life left an indelible impression on him, including a deep respect for the strength and resiliency of Black poor and working people and the importance of community. 

Dr. Turner was inspired by Malcolm X and Dr. John Henrik Clarke

Turner listened to lectures and speeches of Black leaders and scholars of the day including Minister Malcolm X, whose incisive analysis and spellbinding orations would have a lasting impact on a young mind thirsty for knowledge. Equally important, Turner was mentored by some of the great “race men” of the era including Dr. John Henrik Clarke. Clarke rose to become professor emeritus at Hunter College without a high school diploma or Ph.D.

Africana Studies program at Cornell inspired women’s, Latino, gay studies

Dr. Turner consciously sought to make the Africana Studies and Research Center an intellectual refuge for movement activists and freedom fighters, a place for them to find information to inform their work, refine their skills and retool to better engage the struggle on the frontlines. 

The startup of programs dedicated to Africana studies led to a reshaping of an entire culture. In particular, Turner said, Africana studies opened the door for disciplines like women’s, Latino and gay studies.

Dr. Ron Daniels, Turner’s friend and colleague for 40 years, said that Turner is a master at the podium, a progressive, African-centered analyst, advocate and activist who uses his roots in family and community to connect with, inform and inspire sisters and brothers from all walks of life to be “of the race and for the race.”

Dr. Turner co-founded an African-American lobbying group

Dr. Turner was a founding member of Trans Africa, an African American lobbying organization. During the ’70s, he was national organizer of the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which pressed the anti-apartheid campaign in the U.S. In 1974, he served as chairman of the North American delegation to the Sixth Pan African Congress and in 1973, he co-chaired the International Congress of Africanists in Ethiopia.

As a Schomburg Research Fellow at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Turner conducted research on the political philosophy of Malcolm X that served as the basis for his work on the prize-winning PBS series “Eyes on the Prize”. The recipient of the Association of Black Sociologists’ Award of Distinction, Dr. Turner has served as president of the African Heritage Studies Association and on the editorial boards of several leading Black studies journals.

Cornell University this year honored the legacy of Dr. James Turner

On April 12, 2019, the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell held a two-day symposium entitled “Making History: Reflecting on the Legacy of James Turner and Black Student Activism, 1969-2019.”

The symposium commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Willard Straight Occupation and paid homage to the legacy of Dr. Turner, the founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center. The symposium reflected on Turner’s impact in shaping the Black student movement and activism.

Though retired on paper, both James and Janice Turner fill their days with meetings and volunteer gigs.

It’s like we never retired,” Turner said with a smile and a laugh.

Scholarship named for James and Janice Turner

The Cornell Black Alumni Association (CBAA) launched a campaign to fund a new scholarship named for James and Janice Turner to honor Turner, the first director of Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center. Janice Turner is a retired associate dean in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences.

The James and Janice Turner CBAA Scholarship Endowment honors the Turners for their combined nine decades of service to Cornell and will provide scholarships for qualifying African-American students who attend Cornell.

Turner inspired thousands of students

“It’s quite an undertaking to describe the impact both Turners have had, said Eric Acree, librarian at the Africana Center and a student of Turner’s. “Anything I say will be incomplete.”

Dr. Turner will be chronicled in history as a charismatic leader who left an indelible mark on Africana studies in the U.S. and throughout the world.

Shirley Hawkins is a University of California at Los Angeles graduate who started her journalism career at the Los Angeles Sentinel newspaper. Since then, she has been a staff writer for the Los Angeles Wave, the Los Angeles Times’ Our Times newspaper and Our Weekly. Her magazine credits include Upscale magazine, Latina Style and Black Enterprise. Shirley is drawn to reporting stories of people who have struggled to overcome obstacles in life. “For me, those are the most compelling stories,” she said. “By writing stories of people who have faced struggle and adversity, I hope to inspire readers to persevere in life — to not give up hope and to continue to pursue their hopes and dreams, however long they may take.”