La. Black Caucus founder Turnley dies

Richard Turnley Jr.       Keyword Century History Fair
Richard Turnley Jr. Keyword Century History Fair

Richard Turnley Jr., the first black member elected to the Louisiana House from Baton Rouge in modern times and a founder of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, died after a long illness.

His funeral is scheduled for Saturday.

“This city, this state is better off because of Dick Turnley and his courage,” said Cleo Fields, the former U.S. congressman and state senator who now is a Baton Rouge lawyer.

“He was a trailblazer. He opened up so many doors,” Fields said Tuesday. “I had an opportunity to serve because he opened up those doors.”

Joe Delpit, a longtime friend and ally, said he started working with Turnley in the 1960s in a community group put together under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” Delpit said he was in south Baton Rouge while Turnley and Jewell Newman worked in the northern part of the parish.

Their work turned into direct political action, he said. They had to overcome not only direct opposition from the local white population but resistance from the older leaders in the black community, Delpit said Tuesday.

They worked to redraw legislative districts in order to keep the black vote from being overwhelmed by white voters, he said. A voting rights case filed in federal District Court in Baton Rouge led to the creation of single-member districts that concentrated enough voters in black neighborhoods to elect black officials.

Turnley, who had worked for the Southern Teachers and Parents Federal Credit Union since 1959, won election in 1972 to represent Scotlandville and other north Baton Rouge neighborhoods in the Louisiana House of Representatives.

Turnley served three terms in the Louisiana House and then in 1984 was elected to District 14 of the state Senate.

He was one of the 10 founding members of the Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus in 1977.

“We became very close allies, and close friends,” said Delpit, who was elected to the Metro Council and then to the House.

Turnley overcame much opposition during a seven-year period to pass in June 1987, Act 393, a watershed law that discourages discriminatory housing practices in selling or renting residences and in making loans for houses.

After leaving the Legislature, Turnley continued working as chief executive officer and treasurer of the Southern Teachers and Parents Federal Credit Union, the oldest black-owned financial institution in Baton Rouge. He helped real estate developers with loans to build housing and helped buyers get into their first homes, Delpit said.

Turnley’s family is planning to hold a wake from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday at Hall Davis and Sons Funeral Home, 9348 Scenic Highway. Funeral services are being planned for 11 a.m. at Camphor Memorial United Methodist Church, 8742 Scenic Highway.

“Southern University was his first priority,” Delpit said. “He did everything he could to ensure Southern got proper funding for the law school, the library, the education program and the other programs. He understood that education was the way to better the community.”

Delpit laughed to say he may have done that too well, as Turnley was defeated in October 1987 by Fields, then a 24-year-old graduate of Southern University Law Center running for his first elected office. Fields was part of a new wave in Baton Rouge politics that raised, among others, Mayor Kip Holden, state Senate Pro Tem Sharon Broome and 1st Circuit Court of Appeal Judge John Guidry.

“He was hurt and disappointed” at losing the election, Delpit said. But Turnley lost to a member of the generation who benefited from his efforts to improve Southern and higher education, he said.

“The pendulum started to swing another way and a new generation wanted to come up,” Delpit said. “He made that possible.”