By Chance, the Meeting of a Lost Relation
By Margie Fishman
Maybe it was fate, or just coincidence, that led Christy Turner 12C to take a break from cramming for finals last semester and click on an Emory conservator’s blog about a special scrapbook preserved by the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL).
Honoring the late Reverend Ollie James Turner, an African American minister and active community leader in Mississippi, the scrapbook consisted of seventeen loose manila folders covered with black-and-white family photographs, postcards from afar, church program brochures, and certificates chronicling Turner’s birth, marriage, and death. Taken together, these standard artifacts captured a moment in history, encapsulating a life.
As the younger Turner continued reading the library’s website, it became clear to her that this homespun memory book belonged to the great-grandfather she never knew. And, somehow, it had found its way to her Emory campus.
“It was very exciting to find out that there was a piece of my family’s history at my university,” she says. “There are so many stories of African American history that are empowering and uplifting, and they need to be told.”
News traveled fast among the Turner clan, many of whom were not even aware that a scrapbook existed. In January, twenty-four family members—representing four generations and nine states—gathered at MARBL to speak with library conservators, view the scrapbook, and celebrate a reunion in Atlanta, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthplace, on the eve of his birthday. Later that day in Woodruff Library, King Week kicked off with a MARBL-sponsored poetry reading.
It is unclear how or why the scrapbook left the family’s hands. Ollie Turner’s daughter, Mary, a blind artist and teacher, compiled the book after her father died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1966, according to Turner’s son, Dwight, who attended the MARBL viewing. After Mary died, the book was likely part of her estate and squirreled away in storage.
A decade ago, David McCord, an Atlanta antiquarian book dealer, discovered the scrapbook while rifling through a booth of odds and ends at Scott Antique Market. The booth’s owners, two African American women, were unable to recall how they acquired the book, but it likely came from a storage unit, says McCord. A specialist in African American artifacts, McCord immediately appreciated the book’s significance. It is relatively rare to find primary source material from the African American community prior to 1960, he says.
McCord approached Randall Burkett, curator of MARBL’s African American Collections, about housing the piece at Emory. Eight years later, the Turner scrapbook is among the first to be restored under a $170,000 federal Save America’s Treasures grant. The three-year matching grant will enable MARBL, Emory Libraries’ Preservation Office, and the Digital Curation Center to conserve and digitize thirty-four rare African American scrapbooks from 1890 to 1975, including scrapbooks of author Alice Walker, vaudeville performers “Jolly” John Larkin and Johnny Hudgins, and W. S. Scarborough, former slave, author, and Wilberforce University president.
Calling scrapbooks the neglected orphans of the archive world, Burkett notes that they are often in fragile condition, and Turner’s scrapbook was especially delicate.
Born in Lowndes County, Mississippi, in 1894, Turner was ordained a Baptist minister at age sixteen and presided over four churches. He earned a theology degree at Mississippi Baptist Seminary; married his wife, Martha Gamble, in 1917; and had eleven children. An advocate for youth welfare, he traveled on mission trips to Egypt, Israel, and Switzerland. He died at seventy-two.