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An Often Mysterious Life

Bet Power helps rediscover Marion Turner, “an embodiment of all the freedoms that the Utopians believed in.”

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Thursday, November 08, 2012
Photo Courtesy of the David Ruggles Center, Florence, MA
Marion Turner

Florence has had a long history of supporting lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, questioning and intersex (LBGTQI) rights. It’s just little known.

In a series of lectures entitled Stories of Our LGBTQI Ancestors, researcher Bet Power and the Sexual Minorities Archives will help to change that. Their next lecture will look at the fascinating and often mysterious life of Marion Turner, an African-American cross-dressing nurse.

Marion Turner lived in Florence from 1898 to 1903. During that time he worked for Octavia Damon Atkins, a prominent abolitionist and member of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a group of Utopians who developed a communally operated silk mill. Atkins was an influential Utopian; the group of social reformers didn’t believe in gender roles, among many other “ahead-of-their-time” ideas.

In an interview with the Valley Advocate, Bet Power, Executive Director of the Sexual Minorities Educational Foundation, said he sees Marion Turner as a strong example of the tolerance and free-thinking that characterized the Northampton area during the turn of the century.

Turner arrived in Florence from North Carolina and became Atkins’ personal attendant, he explained.

“Marion Turner first came to them dressed as a woman, and we have primary sources that tell us Marion was referred to as ‘she’,” Power said. “Then Marion started wearing pants and dressing as a man and going by ‘he.’ He had the townspeople guessing if he was a man or a woman. Eventually he stayed dressed as a man because he said it was easier to care for the horses and the stables. Marion made a big impression on the community. He was tolerated and was loved.”

Marion Turner was first discovered in the writings of Anna Fredrick in 1930. Fredrick was the author of Recollections of Florence: People Who Attended Cosmian Hall, which detailed the lives of people who frequented the famous free-thinking gathering place. Rediscovered and researched with the help of Ollie Schwartz, an intern at the Sexual Minorities Archives, Marion Turner is starting to reveal his secrets.

“We still don’t know what happened to him once he went back to North Carolina,” Power said. “We do know he lived to be 90, never married or had children. He bought his own burial plot. Marion was, I think, an embodiment of all the freedoms that the Utopians believed in.

“There is, of course, the additional question of race,” Power continued. “ At a time when only around 130 African-Americans were living in this area, here comes Marion Turner.”

It appears that Turner may have had a more independent social status than other African-Americans in the area at the time. More research is still needed. But the discovery of his life and persona holds much significance for Power, who believes that the more examples from history we have of queer lifestyles, the more acceptance and equality will accrue to those lifestyles. Power keeps the 4,000 books that make up the Sexual Minorities Archives in his own house and works to educate people on local LBGTQI history.

“We have always been here, but our story has never been told,” he said.

You can hear Marion Turner’s story, with newly researched text and never-before-seen photography, Nov. 11, 7 p.m., Carroll Room, Smith College, Northampton. The event is also a benefit fundraiser for the Sexual Minorities Archives.

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