Henry Turpin (1836–1908)


Henry Turpin, a black Republican from Goochland County, was a member of the House of Delegates (1871–1873). Born into slavery in 1836, Turpin was freed by his white father in 1857 and during the American Civil War (1861–1865) purchased land adjacent to his in Goochland County. He worked as a house painter. In 1871, Turpin won election to the House of Delegates, defeating a white Conservative Party candidate by a narrow margin. He served one term, introducing a bill that eventually passed, allowing veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops to collect certain medical benefits. After losing election in 1873, he moved to the Bronx, New York, where he married in 1886 and died in 1908.

Turpin was born into slavery on November 15, 1836, in Goochland County and was one of the nine children of Edwin Turpin, a white planter, and his enslaved woman Mary James. Their father freed all but one of them in a deed dated December 13, 1857, and recorded two days later. His elder sister Martha Catherine, who had been freed the previous year, was the wife of William P. Moseley, later a member of the Convention of 1867–1868 and the Senate of Virginia. In November 1863, Turpin paid his father $400 to purchase twenty-five acres of land adjacent to his father’s place of residence in Goochland County.

A Bit of War History: The Veteran

A house painter by trade, Turpin won the nomination at a raucous Republican Party county convention on October 21, 1871, to replace a white Republican as the nominee for the county’s seat in the House of Delegates. In the general election, Turpin defeated a Conservative Party candidate 669 to 647, with six votes going to the original Republican nominee. The Conservative challenged the legality of the election because two election officials at one of the county’s polling places had failed to take the required oaths. Conservatives had a majority of seats in the house but ruled that Turpin had been lawfully elected. Appointed to the lowest-ranking seat on the Committees on Counties, Cities, and Towns and on Officers and Offices at the Capitol, Turpin offered one of several amendments to revise a law that provided artificial legs to men who lost limbs during the Civil War. His amendment stated, “Colored men who lost legs as soldiers or employees in the late war shall be entitled to the benefits of this act.” The assembly enacted the bill with Turpin’s amendment, which permitted veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops to receive the state benefit and perhaps also men who as slaves or civilians had been wounded after being impressed into working on Confederate defenses.

Bond Issued After the Funding Act of 1871

Turpin also voted in 1872 for a law to prohibit payment of taxes with the interest-bearing coupons on bonds the state issued in 1871 to refinance the antebellum public debt. It was the first of almost three decades of legislative attempts to stop the practice that flooded the treasury with coupons and reduced the amount of revenue the state could devote to the new public school system or other public services. Turpin was not on the floor when the assembly overrode the governor‘s veto. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals later declared the law unconstitutional. In March 1873 during the second session of his term, Turpin joined other African Americans and some Republican delegates who opposed what they believed was a partisan and unconstitutional plan by white legislators to elect county judges, but by vote of a large majority the other delegates refused to receive or record their complaint.

African American Railroad Porters

Turpin attended the Republican State Convention in 1873, which elected him to the party’s state central committee. He was nominated for a second term in the House of Delegates at the party’s October 1873 county convention but lost 736 to 662 to a different white Conservative in the general election. Sometime later, probably before the end of the decade, Turpin moved to the Bronx, New York, where his brother Durock Turpin lived with his family. Turpin worked as a sleeping car porter and about 1886 married a Virginia native named Sarah J. (surname unknown). They had one child who died before 1900. Turpin died of heart disease at his New York home on September 7, 1908. He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

November 15, 1836
Henry Turpin is born into slavery in Goochland County.
December 13, 1857
Edwin Turpin, a white planter, frees eight of his enslaved children, including Henry Turpin.
November 1863
Henry Turpin pays his father, Edwin Turpin, $400 to purchase twenty-five acres of land in Goochland County.
October 21, 1871
Henry Turpin wins the Republican Party nomination to replace a white Republican as the nominee for Goochland County's seat in the House of Delegates.
November 7 ,1871
Henry Turpin, a black Republican, defeats the white Conservative candidate for Goochland County's seat in the House of Delegates.
Henry Turpin attends the Republican State Convention, where is elected to the party's state central committee.
October 1873
Henry Turpin is nominated for a second term in the House of Delegates.
November 1873
Henry Turpin, an incumbent black Republican, loses to a white Conservative for Goochland County's seat in the House of Delegates.
Henry Turpin and Sarah J. (surname unknown), a Virginia native, marry in Bronx, New York.
September 7, 1908
Henry Turpin dies at his home in Bronx, New York. He is buried in that city's Woodlawn Cemetery.
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
APA Citation:
Tarter, Brent & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Henry Turpin (1836–1908). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/turpin-henry-1836-1908.
MLA Citation:
Tarter, Brent, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Henry Turpin (1836–1908)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 21 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2024, May 03
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