Black history brochure features members of local doctor’s family

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 28, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Black History Month brought a surprise to Natchez physician Dr. James R. Todd. A brochure prepared to honor Selma, Ala., pioneers featured three of his ancestors on its cover.

&uot;A cousin of mine sent me the brochure in the mail,&uot; Todd said. &uot;I didn’t pay that much attention to the pictures until another relative wrote to say those were family members on the cover.&uot;

Todd’s grandfather, great uncle and great aunt, all members of the prominent Todd family of Selma and descendants of Benjamin Sterling Turner, pose in an interesting studio portrait Dr. Todd had not seen before.

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&uot;Naturally, I didn’t recognize my grandfather. I had never seen the photograph before, and I remember him only as a very old man.&uot;

The family history that begins with Benjamin Sterling Turner is filled with superlatives, not the least of which is Turner himself, a slave who taught himself to read and write and then almost lost his life because of it.

&uot;A woman bought him in 1850 and made him manager of the St. James Hotel,&uot; Todd said. &uot;He remained as manager until 1861.&uot;

Turner joined Union Gen. William T. Sherman and fought with him on the famous Civil War march to the sea.

After the Civil War, he was elected Selma’s first African-American tax collector and then one of the city’s first councilmen.

In 1870, Turner added another distinctive first to his career by becoming the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Congress.

The Selma brochure points out that Turner worked to win amnesty for most Confederate leaders.

Dr. Todd’s grandfather, born in 1886, led a distinguished life until his death in 1950, centering his energies on education and politics.

&uot;While my grandfather was president of the Alabama Teachers Association, he met my grandmother.&uot; The couple moved to Tallulah (La.) and, from there, to Lumberton.

The career took flight from there, with the founding of a school at Lumberton and then teaching school in Pearl River County.

&uot;He built the Pearl River County Training School,&uot; Dr. Todd said. &uot;He had four boys, including my father, and one girl. All the boys were graduates of Tuskegee University, educated by George Washington Carver, and the daughter graduated from Straight University in New Orleans.&uot;

Of the many interesting stories about his grandfather, one is that the local bankers &uot;would sneak him into the bank for him to balance the books for them.&uot;

When he died in 1950, his grandfather was the only registered black voter in Pearl River County, Dr. Todd said.

As head of the Republican Party in Pearl River County, he had made all the party’s political appointments there in the early to mid 20th century.

Education continued to draw the Todd family for another generation, as Dr. Todd’s father went on to become principal of the school his own father had founded in Pearl River County.

&uot;And all of my uncles became school principals in Lumberton, Hattiesburg, Collins and Bassfield.&uot;

Dr. Todd was born in Natchez, where his mother’s family, the Donnans, had deep roots.

&uot;Mother wanted me to be born in Natchez. She came here for me to be born here. I don’t think she liked Poplarville very much,&uot; Dr. Todd said.

For the last three generations, everyone in his family has been a college graduate, Dr. Todd said.

Education continued to interest many in the family, and he knew he was expected to follow the tradition. &uot;That just didn’t suit me, though,&uot; he said.

One cousin remains in Selma today, Todd said. He and his wife, Fredericka Todd, go every Easter for a visit and stay at the now restored St. James Hotel.