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Wyatt B. Turner, longtime civil rights activist, dies

After decades of civil rights activism on Long Island, Wyatt Burghardt Turner swore that nothing would keep him from seeing the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

He missed by just 10 days.

Turner, 93, a retired Stony Brook University history professor and founding president of the Brookhaven NAACP, died Jan. 11 in his home in Riderwood Village, a Maryland retirement community. He had been diagnosed with a rare, virulent form of cancer, just days after the election.

"He actively worked on the campaign," said his son, Mitchell, who lives in Tampa, Fla. "He made phone calls, he went door-to-door, he was a poll watcher. He was overjoyed when Obama won. He really wanted to see [the inauguration], he just didn't quite make it."

Turner's activism was a birthright, his son said, noting that his grandfather was an accountant for the NAACP from its inception. Turner's middle name, Burghardt, was given to him in honor of civil rights leader and author W.E.B DuBois, who had been a family friend.

Born in Jamaica, Queens, Turner finished high school in Kentucky, while tending to his ailing grandmother. He earned a bachelor's degree in history and sociology at Kentucky State College.

Back in New York, Turner started a milk delivery route in his old neighborhood to pay for graduate school at Columbia University. One day, he spied the pretty daughter of a family on his route, who also was a Columbia student.

"It's true, he was the milkman," said his wife of 66 years, Joyce. "He may have been coming around, collecting when I met him. I thought he was kind of interesting."

After they married, Turner shipped out to Italy to serve in the Army during World War II.

When he returned, Turner earned his master's degree in history at Columbia and moved his growing family to Patchogue. He loved the classroom, but couldn't find a district that would hire a black teacher, so he became a claims examiner for the Social Security Administration.

In 1947, his family said, he became the first black teacher in Bay Shore. After stints at Patchogue High School and Southampton College, Turner joined the history department at Stony Brook in 1968.

His tenure at Stony Brook was marked by community and civil rights activism, both on and off-campus. He helped found the Brookhaven branch of the NAACP and served as its president. He also served as chairman of the Suffolk County Human Rights Commission and its Economic Opportunity Council. His wife, a school administrator in Brentwood, often joined him in his work.

Turner fought housing discrimination and organized marches in solidarity with those in Selma, Ala. He introduced Stony Brook's first courses on African-American history and Native American history.

"He was known as the go-to guy in a lot of situations," Mitchell Turner said.

In 1988, 10 years after he retired from Stony Brook, the school named a fellowship program for minority graduate students after him.

The Turners retired to Tucson, Ariz., in the early 1990s, where he continued to be involved in many causes, including the Unitarian Universalist Church and tutoring programs for children. They moved to Maryland in 2006.

Besides his wife and eldest son, Turner is survived by another son, Richard, of Rockville, Md., a daughter, Dr. Sylvia Turner of Dallas; two brothers, Marion of Wilson, N.C., and Frost of Jamaica, Queens; and five grandchildren.

The family requests donations in lieu of flowers to The Turner Family Memorial Garden Corp., c/o Edna Turner, 5445 NE 1st Lane, Ocala, FL, 34475; or Stony Brook Foundation-Turner Support Fund, c/o Stony Brook Foundation, Stony Brook University, NY, 11794.

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