When I arrived at the University of Iowa in 1983, Dr. Darwin Theodore Troy Turner had already reached a commanding plateau of his amazing academic career. At that time, he was the University of Iowa Foundation’s Distinguished Professor of English. It was the crowning achievement to an odyssey of learning that began when he was a child prodigy coming of age in Cincinnati.
On the occasions when I was fortunate to be in his company, Turner was a quiet and introspective scholar, and he had to be prodded to talk about his remarkable educational journey.
Born May 7, 1931 in Cincinnati, Turner’s pedigree was long and illustrious. His great-great-grandfather, Owen Nichols, was one of the first African-American teachers in the city and later opened the first Black school. Turner’s grandfather, Charles Turner, was a biologist and the first African-American to obtain a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. Turner’s father, Darwin Romanes Turner, was a pharmacist, and his mother, Laura Knight, was a fiction writer and taught the sixth grade. Her mother, Laura Troy Knight, was a school principal.
Turner was 13 when he was accepted as a student at the University of Cincinnati. Within three years he graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors, becoming the school’s youngest graduate.
Turner was 18 when he received his master’s degree in English and American drama from the University of Cincinnati. Seven years later, he received his Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago.
In 1949, accompanied by his new wife, Edna Bonner, Turner began teaching English at Clark College in Atlanta. Three years later, he was an assistant professor at Morgan State College in Baltimore. From 1959 to 1966, he taught at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where he later accepted the dean position at the graduate school.
It was during a brief stint at the University of Michigan that a divorced Turner married Maggie Jean Lewis, who, like his mother, was a school teacher. He became chair of the Afro-American Studies Department at the University of Iowa in 1972, where he would he would remain for the rest of his life.
The welter of administrative obligations did not deter him from literary creativity and criticism, a realm in which he was among the leading authorities on African-American literature. In 1964, he published “Katharsis,” a collection of his poetry. Three years later, he wrote a book on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” His “In a Minor Chord,” an analysis of several Harlem Renaissance authors, was widely hailed and reaffirmed his status as a literary critic. That summit was given additional resonance with the publication of his essay on Afro-American critics that appeared in Addison Gayle’s “The Black Aesthetic” in 1971.
At the end of the essay, Turner said he wanted to conclude on a note of optimism. “But I cannot,” he lamented. “The chances are great that unless America changes drastically within the next few years, most American readers will continue to look at literature through the eyes of white critics rather than the Black. Full awareness of Black critics will develop only when publishers make greater effort to look beyond the prestige colleges for authors of scholarly books, and when the literary public learns to look beyond the prestige journals for literary scholarship. And full appreciation of the criticism of Afro-American literature will develop only when all readers perceive that a thorough knowledge and understanding of the Afro-American experience, culture, and literary history is a prerequisite for an individual who wishes to be a critic of that literature.”
This statement is an example of the conversations I had with him and the lessons he instilled during my brief tenure under him at the University of Iowa. Along with the information I gleaned from these encounters, he also helped me land a job at American College Testing, just one of several organizations and institutions where he was highly respected or was a member, including the Graduate Record Examination Board, the Modern Language Association, the National Council of Black Studies and the Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities.
Turner had more than a passing interest in the theater and devoted considerable time supporting a variety of theatrical enterprises. Among these endeavors was his promotion of the Black Action Theatre, which was established at the University of Iowa in 1968 for the production of plays having cultural significance to African-Americans. Today, this unit of the University of Iowa Theatre Arts is named the Darwin Turner Action Theatre.
In 1977, Turner was selected as a delegate to represent the U.S. at the Second World Festival of Black and American Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria. During his lifetime, he amassed numerous awards, most notably the University of Cincinnati’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. The awards, like the honors he received, are as numerous as the essays, reviews and criticism he wrote for countless journals and magazines.
At the time of his death, Feb. 11, 1991, at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City, he was 59 and completing work on his book “Black Drama in America” (1994).
Beyond his publications and academic accomplishments, Turner’s legacy is embellished by the Darwin T. Turner Scholars Program, formerly known as the Minority Scholars Program. It was established in 1976 to honor the esteemed scholar and it continues to pursue the academic excellence Turner forged during his astonishing career in and out of the classrooms of America.