Dr. James Turner – the trailblazing scholar, activist and educator who pioneered Africana Studies at Cornell University – died last week. He was ##.
For more than half a century, Turner dedicated his life to using his intellect and activism to study and improve the human condition of Black people across the African Diaspora while teaching others to do the same.
In 1969, Turner was handpicked to be the founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell after Black students took over Willard Straight Hall to protest the lack of relevant Black curriculums and make other demands.
He remembered the moment well in a 2011 interview with Ithaca.com.
“We were the first generation of Africana studies,” Turner said. “People would say, ‘there is no black culture, there is no black literature,’ so how will you teach a course on it?”
“We got here at a very opportune moment in the history of Cornell, at a crossroads in the history of the country,” James continued. “At that moment, many took off school, left, and put their own ambitions on hold because of their commitment to the larger issue of human rights for black people, to continue the unfinished process of the civil war.”
According to a bio on the university’s website, coined the term Africana Studies for the department “to conceptualize the comprehensive studies of the African diaspora and describe the multidisciplinary analysis of the lives and thoughts of people of African ancestry throughout the world.”
Under Turner’s leadership, Cornell’s African Studies program became a blueprint for Black studies programs across the nation and programs that studied other marginalized groups.
A student of Malcolm X’s teachings and mentee of Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Turner was also a founding member of the Black lobbying organization TransAfrica; a national organizer of the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee; chair of the North American delegation to the Sixth Pan African Congress; and a Schomburg Research Fellow, among other honors.
In 2019, Turner was honored by Cornell for his immense impact. At the time, he was the professor emeritus of African and African American Politics and Social Policy.
Upon news of his death, Black America remembered Dr. James Turner.
“I had a little debate with Dr. Turner in his office in 2001. It was about Cornel West using his issues at Harvard as a national political issue,” Moguldom Nation Founder Jamarlin Martin tweeted. “Dr. Turner told me ‘brother, you may need that support later, we have to support each other.’ RIP.”
“Dr. James Turner, the founding director of the Africana Studies and Research Center at Cornell University, was an institution builder like no other. One of the leading lights of Black Studies has gone to rest with the ancestors,” author and professor Dr. Ibram Kendi tweeted. “Rest in power Dr. Turner.”
“The news seems to be out… so, yes, it’s true. Dr. James Turner, one of the founders of Africana Studies, has gone to be with the ancestors,” professor Leslie Alexander tweeted. “To me, he was a mentor, father, comrade, friend, and my moral compass I am completely shattered…”
“Rest in Power Dr. James Turner founding director of the Africana Research Center at Cornell. Thank you for loving, mentoring and inspiring so many,” @afprl tweeted. “We will carry on the tradition of principled struggle. A great and mighty tree has fallen. May the Ancestors welcome him.”
“Scholar, Activist, Intellectual, Freedom Fighter, Leader…but to me, Dr. James Turner meant much more,” Yusuf A.Muhammad Jr. tweeted. “Thank You for arming me with the tools needed to impact our people. Thank You for teaching me and countless others… Rest in Power…Asé”
“All institutions need to honor James Turner for the creation of a field as they talk about his intent and legacy,” Dr. Carole Boyce Davies wrote.
“Rest In Power Dr. #JamesTurner. My favorite professor. A giant example of #AfricanaStudies, intellectualism, principle, style, and reserved strength,” @IMIXWHATILIKE wrote.
“The ancestors welcomed one of their greatest gifts to us and to the @Cornell community, Dr. James Turner.,” @MsSParkinson tweeted. “Turner was the founding director of the Africana Studies & Research Center and scholar who initiated the term ‘Africana.’”
“Dr. James Turner, a beautiful human & leader transcends. Love & light to his family,” Malaika Adero wrote.
PHOTOS: Left to right: Dr. James Turner speaks with a student in March 1979 at Cornell University’s Director of Africana Studies and Research Center. Dr. Turner is pictured in his latter years. (Photos: Courtesy of Cornell University)