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May 10, 1947
Guest post by Andrew Spargo, undergraduate student at Iowa State University.
On May 10, 1947, the Baltimore Afro-American published a story under the headline “U. of Cinn. Senior Makes Phi Beta Kappa at 15.” The story was about a young man named Darwin Turner, who, at the age of thirteen, was the youngest freshman to enroll in the University of Cincinnati. Even more impressive than his early enrollment is the fact that this young man continued on to finish his Bachelor of Arts degree in a mere three years. His mother, who had also matriculated at the University of Cincinnati, had graduated some years earlier with her own degree at the age of eighteen, setting a record of her own before sticking around campus to earn another three degrees after the first. Not only did Turner “beat his mother’s record,” but he was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa during his studies at the university and planned to stay at the college until he left with his own list of degrees and honors. (Click to view article via Google News.)
From his family’s impressive pedigree, one could almost say that Turner was destined for greatness. His paternal grandfather Charles H. Turner was the first African-American psychologist, his father was a pharmacist, and his mother set her own shining academic example. Turner himself was regarded as a sort of child prodigy who started grade school at two years of age and advanced on to the fourth grade only two years later. By seven, he had finished the sixth grade, and he culminated his pre-college career by graduating from high school at a mere thirteen years of age. The young Turner was an intelligent, motivated, and driven student, and upon receiving his Bachelor of the Arts from the University of Cincinnati, he stayed at the university, earning his master’s degree in English and American Drama in 1949. That year, he married his first wife, Edna Bonner, and began teaching English at Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia. A few years later, the young couple moved to Baltimore, Maryland, after Turner accepted an assistant professor position at Morgan State College. Turner balanced family, work, and his doctoral studies, ultimately earning a PhD from the University of Chicago when he was twenty-five years old. During the intervening years, Turner held various other positions in academia at other schools. He also divorced Ms. Bonner, remarried in 1968, and eventually landed in Iowa City, Iowa, teaching English and acting as the chair for the Afro-American Studies Department in 1972.
Turner died of a heart attack in 1991, at the age of fifty-nine. He left a legacy, however, that will survive him throughout time immemorial. At the University of Iowa, the Darwin Turner Action Theater serves as a vehicle for engaging with the community through the arts. At the University of Cincinnati, the Darwin T. Turner Scholars Program honors the academic sacrifices and rigor of underrepresented minority students with full-ride scholarships and provides access to social and professional programs to allow those students to expand their horizons beyond the classroom. Turner’s legacy also lives on through the work that he did in editing and contributing to African-American literature and his own publications.