J.L. Turner Sr. was born in 1869 in Dallas County where he was reared on a farm. Following high school graduation, Turner left Dallas County to attend Wiley College in the East Texas city of Marshall. He then moved to Chicago where he received his LL.B. degree in 1896 from the Kent College of Law, which today is IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law.
In 1898 Turner returned to Dallas and practiced law downtown at 155 Main Street with Joseph E. Wiley, probably Dallas’s second African-American attorney. Turner himself was only the third or fourth African-American attorney ever to practice in Dallas, and he maintained his practice until his death in 1951.
Turner was very much a pioneer. By 1890, there were only twelve African-American lawyers in the entire state of Texas, and, as late as 1930, there were only twenty. Having a law degree made Turner exceptional, particularly in the early years of his career. For most of the nineteenth century, candidates for admission to the bar usually lacked a formal legal education, having instead “read the law” under the tutelage of one or more older attorneys. Texas did not have a bar exam until 1903.
In 2016, George Keaton Jr., a Turner descendant, donated to SMU's Underwood Law Library much of his family's archive of Turner materials. The archive is the source of most items in this exhibit. Many documents from the archive are available at https://www.smu.edu/libraries/digitalcollections/jlt.
Reference: John G. Browning & Carolyn Wright, We Stood on Their Shoulders: The First African American Attorneys in Texas, 59 How. L.J. 55 (2015).