Henrietta Turnquest, 73, trailblazer for Black women politicians, dies

Former state representative Henrietta Turnquest was a trailblazer.



Former state representative Henrietta Turnquest was a trailblazer.

Carl Turnquest recalled a scary day in about 1960.

The 12-year-old, his 13-year-old sister Henrietta and a younger sibling, Theresa, set out on the New York subway to attend their mother’s sorority event. The trio got lost changing trains.

The youngster siblings got worried. Henrietta stayed calm and got busy.

She quizzed subway employees for directions, herded and re-assured her siblings and quite literally got them back on track.

“We got there an hour late, but we got there,” Carl recalled. “She just had determination and stick-to-it-iveness.”

Determination personified Henrietta Turnquest as she became an attorney, state lawmaker and community activist in her adopted home of Georgia. That, plus fearlessness and the ability to spot problems and bring coalitions together made her a trailblazer.

“My mother was in the vanguard,” said son Malcolm Turnquest, noting that she was initially one of fewer than 50 black female attorneys in Georgia and among the first handful of women of color elected to the Georgia General Assembly. She became the first Black woman to serve as an assistant floor leader — for Governor Roy Barnes — and spearheaded the integration of the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers.

Henrietta Turnquest, 73, died of complications of Alzheimer’s March 29 in Mobile, Alabama. A memorial service was held April 26.

“She always stood her ground,” recalled State Senator Nan Orrock, who served with Turnquest in the state House. “She was very clear about standing up for African-Americans at the table and addressing the myriad examples of discrimination that abounded.”

Younger sister Theresa Gail Snipe thinks it stemmed from lessons learned early.

She said on a family trip to Florida, the New Yorkers stopped at a large hotel and entertainment complex in South Carolina.

“My father knew they didn’t accept Black people. But he drove right up and walked his butt through the front door. I guess he wanted them to tell him to his face that he couldn’t stay there,” Snipe said.

Turnquest championed small business owners, African-American entrepreneurs, seniors and child welfare advocates, working on behalf a myriad of organizations in both a legislative and later a lobbying role.

“Her big thing was public policy advocacy,” said attorney Bettieanne Hart, a fellow legislator at the time. “She wanted to engage communities with what was going on after an election. Most people think if you just vote somebody in it will be okay.”

A turning point for Turnquest came in 1968 when she was a senior at Spelman College, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated Family said the tragedy spurred her to go to law school and into the public arena.

“Initially, she wanted to be a teacher,” said Malcolm Turnquest. “But when that happened, she said ‘I want to help the people.’”

Turnquest returned to New York for law school then headed South, practicing in Savannah and Columbus before winning a state representative seat from DeKalb County in 1990, serving until 2002.

At the Gold Dome, she didn’t play small friends said.

Colleagues credited Turnquest with helping develop legislation that led to removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag and working with Barnes on educational issues.

As MARTA vice-chair, she is said to have helped craft a funding formula that made the agency’s proposed expansion to Clayton County palatable to voters, who approved it in 2014.

She also helped others get their public service feet wet. Teaching at Morehouse and Spelman, she arranged state legislative internships for students.

Turnquest also sought solutions in the private arena, founding or co-founding organizations that advocated for senior citizen rights and promoted wellness and nutrition.

“What really sticks out in my mind was the leadership she exhibited when we were younger,” Carl Turnquest said. “And she was the proxy who took care of us kids when our parents weren’t around.”

The family requests that those interested in donating to a cause in her memory contact Malcolm.Turnquest@gmail.com.