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date: 25 June 2022

Turner, John Bristerfree

Turner, John Bristerfree

  • Sadye L. M. LoganSadye L. M. LoganDream Maker's Education Foundation, Encyclopedia of Social Work, Social Work Journal for Women


John Brister Turner (1922–2009), a distinguished professor and dean emeritus at the University of North Carolina (UNC) Chapel Hill School of Social Work, great leader, visionary, writer, scholar, and teacher. He devoted his life to community organization, social activism, and social work education. He was respected and admired for his pioneering work and leadership, and was viewed as a “bridge builder” between government leaders and service providers.


  • Biographies

John Brister Turner (1922–2009) was born to Virginia Brown Turner and Brister William Turner on the campus of Fort Valley State College in Fort Valley, Georgia. At an early age, his parents moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and then to A&M College in Normal, Alabama. Having received his early education in Atlanta and Normal, Turner attended Atlanta University’s Laboratory High School where he was elected into the National Honor Society. Turner later received his college degree from Morehouse College. While at Morehouse, he majored in mathematics. His college education was interrupted in his last year by World War II. During the last semester of his senior year, he enlisted and was accepted into the Army Air Corps for pilot training. While waiting to be called for duty, he was drafted into the Army. However, an Army officer encouraged him to apply for training in the Tuskegee Airmen program. Turner was one of only twenty-five men in his class of seventy-five to graduate from the program. He was trained to be a B-25 pilot, but his squadron was short of men. Victims of racism during this period, Turner and his comrades were forced to wait a full year for the squadron to be completed with enough African American men before they were permitted to fly overseas. By that time, the war had ended. Turner returned to Morehouse, but because of his experience while in the Air Force, he returned a changed man. Before the war, he had planned for a career in engineering. During the war, his observation of the social problems which plagued African American communities caused him to want to do something to help change these conditions, and so he was advised to enter the field of social work. His educational direction moved from a focus on things to a focus on helping people, particularly his own African American people, solve the problems of health, jobs, housing, and education. Turner continued his education and earned a Master of Social Work (MSW) and Doctor’s Degree (PhD) from the School of Social Work at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

Turner held many professional positions in his career. He served on the faculties of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University, the University of Georgia in Athens, and at Case Western Reserve University where he also served as Dean. In 1965, he received a Fulbright Scholarship which led to many years of working in Egypt with the establishment of social programs throughout the country. In 1974, he received a Kenan Professorship at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Social Work, becoming Dean of the School in 1982—the first African American dean at UNC—and remained in the position until his retirement in 1992. He also served the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare as Director of the Egyptian Social Welfare Manpower, Training Project in Cairo, Egypt, between 1979 and 1981, and as a visiting professor and consultant at the University of Minya, Egypt. He also served as a visiting professor and consultant at many other institutions in the United States and abroad.

Among many organizational duties, Turner was President of the National Conference on Social Welfare between 1977 and 1979 and Chair of the Nominating Committee of the National Association of Deans and Directors (NADD) of the Schools of Social Work. He also developed an illustrious career as an academic consultant, including Special Consultant for the Urban League. As an internationally recognized social worker, he established UNC School of Social Work’s PhD program as well as its first development office. He attracted unprecedented resources and, during his tenure, moved the School forward to its highest ranking of 12th among 120 US graduate social work programs.

Turner authored numerous articles and books and served as editor-in-chief of the seventeenth edition of the Encyclopedia of Social Work, one of the field’s most prestigious publications. He was recognized nationally and internationally and received awards for excellence in social work education from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). Turner was recognized as a brilliant community service worker throughout his life. He had a special talent to negotiate programs to benefit and improve the university community as well as the civic community beyond. Former Dean of the School, Richard Edwards wrote: “His wisdom, leadership and tireless work ethic in innumerable roles across the UNC campus won him wide admiration and respect as one of the University’s great leaders and visionaries.” Turner realized the great need for the School of Social Work to have its own building and worked for over a decade towards that endeavor, which culminated in the 1995 dedication of the Tate Turner Kuralt building on the UNC campus, sharing this accomplishment with the eminent late Jack Tate and Charles Kuralt. The building also houses the Jordan Institute of Families which Turner established with a magnanimous donation from Michael Jordan and family. The research, training, and technical assistance arm of the School, the Jordan Institute develops and tests policies and practices that strengthen families and engages communities. In 2007, the School of Social Work honored him with the establishment of the Sandra Reeves Spears and John B. Turner Distinguished Professorship for a leading scholar in the field who will “teach methods of working with families, engagement with community agencies, and promote the best practice models.” Turner was also the recipient of the NASW Pioneer Award.

Turner’s career in social work spanned more than forty years and his efforts and leadership helped earn national recognition for the UNC School of Social Work at Chapel Hill. He was respected and admired for his pioneering work and leadership. He believed that attitude in life was the single most important element in determining one’s success. Admired for his warmth, eloquence, and charm, Turner died on January 30, 2009. He was eighty-six years old.