BOB TURNER: A man of colour who needs a new place of honour in Cornwall

BOB TURNER: A man of colour who needs a new place of honour in Cornwall
Bob Turner, the City of Cornwall's first Recreation Director and first black employee. Seaway News file photo.

CORNWALL, Ontario – A man who helped to usher in minor sports in Cornwall, while at the same time battling an onslaught of racial bigotry, could one day soon be honoured again in the Seaway City.

Bob Turner, the city’s first recreation director who had an arena named after him, took his lumps in the early days of his tenure in Cornwall. As a black man in the 1950s Turner was nearly forced from the city before Mayor Archie Lavigne intervened and called out the hate-mongers.

“He went on the radio…when radio was big in this town, and told them we would not put up with this in Cornwall,” said Coun. Claude McIntosh, who wants to see Turner immortalized once more.

The Bob Turner Memorial Centre was torn down a couple of years ago, and now all that remains to honour the man who died suddenly following routine surgery while in his 30s is a bust at the Benson Centre.

Fittingly, as part of Black History Month, McIntosh rose at city hall Monday to talk about Turner’s legacy. Councillors were so impressed they applauded McIntosh’s remarks.

Coun. Bernadette Clement said honouring the past and looking ahead, especially on the Turner file, is important. As a peron of colour Clement said she always felt welcome in Cornwall, but it wasn’t like that all the time – especially for Turner in the early going.

“It always made me feel like, wow, I’ve chosen to come to a place that has pioneering people,” she said. “And I’ve always felt very close to the Bob Turner story.

“There was racism, of course. But there were also people who stood up to that.”

The Turner attacks started with hate-filled letters laced with profanity and the n-word. Then the telephone calls took over, some of them in the middle of the night. All of them anonymous.

One night while driving home from a city council meeting he noticed a car following him. It pulled alongside and tried to run him off the road.

Lavigne called out the perpetrators as “vicious, vulgar, slanderous cowards.”

Thankfully there are more of those days behind us, than ahead.

Clement said recognizing Black History Month at city hall, and indeed throughout the city, came about via the help of the Manigat family – who made her feel welcome nearly immediately when she moved to Cornwall 25 years ago.

“There were very few people of colour. I was often the only person of colour in a meeting room. That wasn’t something that I was used to,” she said, adding when she was elected to city hall the Manigats and others pushed for more recognition via Black History Month. “They reached out to me and made me feel welcome. That helped me a lot.

“I’m not the only person of colour in the room anymore…and it feels good.”

Just what will happen to honour Turner, arguably one of the most influential people of colour the city has ever known, is still a matter of debate.

There was some off-the-cuff discussion following Monday’s meeting that councillors could move to rename Riverdale Park after Turner.

“We’ll have to talk about it, because there are lots of ideas out there,” said Clement.

McIntosh wasn’t entirely supportive of that idea, though he didn’t rule it out either. McIntosh said a plaque with a high-degree of visbility at a place like the civic complex might be a better idea.

“There has to be some more thought put into this,” he said. “It just annoys me that they took (the Bob Turner Memorial Centre) down and nothing was done for him in its place.

“I just think a lot of people don’t realize what he did for this community.”

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