Biographical Database of Black Woman Suffragists

Biography of Lillian Anderson Turner, 1877-1924

By Lexie Botzum, undergraduate student, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD

Lillian Anderson was born around 1877 in Ohio to parents from Kentucky. She married Val Do Turner, a physician, in 1896, and they moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1898. As of 1910, the two could be found still living and working in St. Paul. Lillian Anderson Turner spent much of her life tirelessly engaged in learning, teaching, charity, and women's advocacy.

Lillian Turner worked as a school teacher, Sunday school training teacher, and volunteer social worker. Her work training Sunday school teachers was particularly extensive. She spent five years training “officers, teachers, and students in all colored Protestant denominations of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” and she traveled to Florida for the winter in 1913 to train Sunday school teachers; visit schools, colleges, and teachers; and organize girls' and women's clubs throughout the state “for community betterment.”

In Minnesota, Lillian Turner also participated with the women's clubs. She served as honorary president of the Minnesota Association of Colored Women's Clubs of. As part of the volunteer social work she engaged through the club, Turner was a social service worker of the Juvenile Court of St. Paul for seven years, handling the widows' pension department and children's work. It was this volunteering which inspired her to pursue higher education, in order to better understand “the Negro social history.” In 1914, she was also listed as secretary of St. Paul's NAACP chapter.

In 1914, Lillian Turner attended Fisk University's commencement. Encouraged by adult students graduating, she decided to enroll at the University of Minnesota that same year. She studied both sociology and anthropology, and she was the first student of color to receive Phi Beta Kappa recognition at the university. She spent the last half year completing a master's degree and conducting research at Wilberforce University in Ohio. She graduated in February 1918.

While a student, Lillian Turner contributed to The Crisis with an essay that was part of a set discussing woman suffrage. Her work, titled “Votes for Housewives,” published in the August 1915 edition, was a witty and clever piece, noting that if reason was the necessary qualification for all voters, housewives should merit the vote; they work chiefly by reason, having faced too frequent disappointment to rely upon sentiment. Turner concluded with the wry assertion that she had “ceased to tremble when [she hears] dire predictions of the ruin that is expected to follow the rapid approach of women's franchise.”

Almost immediately upon graduation in 1918, Lillian Turner was recruited by the National Urban League of New York City. She accepted the position and moved to New York. By 1918, Lillian and Val Do Turner had divorced because on September 14, Val Do Turner married Clara Elizabeth Howard. Also, Lillian Turner was listed in the 1920 census as divorced, living in Manhattan, and employed in social work.

In 1919, Lillian Turner wrote another piece for The Crisis, this time explaining the work performed by the National Urban League. The organization worked to develop opportunities for “urban Negros,” seeking jobs for black residents, and attempting to put them in productive dialogue with white workers and bosses.

After 1921, records of Turner become difficult to trace, suggesting she either died (a woman named Lillie A. Turner died in 1924) or remarried. Lillian Anderson Turner devoted her adult life to educating others, engaging in social work, organizing charities, advocating on behalf of communities of color, and pursuing her own higher education. Turner supported woman suffrage, and she was a brilliant woman passionate about learning, religion, service, equal rights, and community betterment.


CAPTION: Lillian A. Turner, St. Paul, Minnesota, ca. 1910.
CREDIT: “The Charity Entertainment,” The Appeal (St. Paul, MN), November 30, 1912, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.


Addie Streator Wright, “An Active Member and Yet Not a ‘Fiskie,” Fisk University News, June 1, 1921, pp. 38-39. HathiTrust.

“Annual Meeting,” The Appeal (St. Paul, MN), November 13, 1915,

“The Charity Entertainment,” The Appeal (St. Paul, MN), November 30, 1912, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.

Find a Grave, Lillian A. Turner, November 10, 2016,

Lillian Turner, “Votes for Housewives,” The Crisis, August 1915, 192.

Lillian Turner, “The National Urban League,” The Crisis 18, no.1 (May 1919), 25-26. [LINK]

“Mrs. Lillian Turner Graduates,” The Appeal (St. Paul, MN), February 23, 1918, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers, Library of Congress.

“Mrs. Lillian Turner, Honorary President Adelphai Club, St. Paul,” The Appeal (St. Paul, MN), September 24, 1910,

“Notes from Branches,” The Crisis 7, no. 6 (April 1914), 289.

“St. Paul,” The Appeal (St. Paul, MN), April 9, 1898,

United States Census 1910, s.v. “Lillian Turner, Ramsey, MN,” HeritageQuest.

United States Census 1920, s.v. “Lillian A. Turner, Manhattan, NY,” HeritageQuest.

“Wife of Booker T. Is to Speak in this City,” Tampa Times, March 12, 1913,

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