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February 26, 2014

African-American History Month Spotlight: Albert L. Turner, John A. Cobbs, and Delta Sigma Rho

In celebration of African-American History Month we are spotlighting 2 alumni - Albert Louis Turner and John Alfred Cobbs - who were prize-winning debaters, and Delta Sigma Rho, forensic honor society.

Albert L. Turner, 1923

Albert Turner was born 4/9/1900 in New Orleans. After graduation from New Orleans University High School he entered Adelbert College in 1919. As a student he was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, the Debate Team, and the track team. He also ran in the Hudson Relay for 3 years. When he first entered Adelbert he was planning a career in medicine but at some point he changed to law. A prize-winner in oratory in high school, he continued in college. He won first place in the Junior-Sophomore Oratorical Contest, second place in the Junior-Senior Extempore Contest, and the President’s Prize in Debating. He graduated cum laude from Adelbert College in 1923. He entered the Law School and graduated in 1927, being elected to the Order of the Coif. He practiced law in Cleveland with Alexander Martin, a graduate of Adelbert class of 1895 and Law School 1898. He received the M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in 1933 and 1943. He taught political science and history at Tuskegee Institute, 1928-1941, also serving as assistant dean and registrar. Dr. Turner served as Professor of Law and Dean of the School of Law at North Carolina College 1941-1965. (He worked for the federal government for 4 months in 1944.) He died in 1973. His wife, Dessa Clements, received the degree of Pharmaceutical Chemist from the WRU School of Pharmacy in 1922.

John A. Cobbs

John A. Cobbs was born 1/8/1912 in Roanoke, Virginia. He moved to Cleveland when he was in junior high school and graduated from Central High School before entering Adelbert College. As a student Cobbs was a member of the Powerhouse editorial staff (the Powerhouse was a student feature magazine), the football team, and the Reserve Rostrum. He was one of the members of the first team of the Reserve Rostrum. In March 1934 he won the Public Discussion contest at the National Invitation Meet of Delta Sigma Rho at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. At the same tournament he was a member of the team which tied for second place in debate. He took first place ($100) in the Northern Oratorical League contest held at the University of Minnesota in May 1934. According to a newspaper account, “This is one of the greatest forensic honors that can be conferred upon a college orator. Three of the four judges gave Cobbs an undisputed first place. The winning speech was titled “Three Score Years and Ten” and outlined the progress of the Negro race.” He won the Civic League Oratorical contest in 1933, and the Annual Oratorical Contest for the President’s Prizes at Adelbert in 1933. He won the state championship in oratorical contests at Ohio Wesleyan in 1933. Cobbs graduated from Adelbert College in 1934.

Delta Sigma Rho was a forensic honor society (it is now known as Delta Sigma Rho-Tau Kappa Alpha). It was founded in 1906. The Western Reserve University chapter was established in 1911. Howard S. Woodward was the faculty advisor for debating activities at WRU in the 1920s and 1930s when Turner and Cobbs were students. Educated at Hiram College, Yale University and Harvard, he began teaching at Illinois State Normal School in 1905. He began at Adelbert College in 1909 as instructor in English and became Professor of English in 1924 and Professor of Speech in 1927. He was still professor at the time of his death 12/8/1942.

Delta Sigma Rho had a provision against Negro members. Over time there were several attempts to abolish this provision. In 1931 a vote was taken by chapters to strike out the words “not a negro” from the Constitution and General Regulations. The WRU chapter voted in favor of the action but it failed to be approved by the necessary vote. In 1934 an attempt to strike down the color line again was held.

The members of the WRU chapter received a 7/28/1934 letter from Woodward which, in part, stated:

“In part because of my efforts and actuated in part by the achievements of John Cobbs during 1933-1934, the national president has resubmitted the amendment to the constitution which would remove the bar to Negro membership This proposal was approved by the Reserve chapter when last submitted and I hope it will be supported again by our chapter.

“In the case of the Reserve chapter John Cobbs constitutes the most convincing argument for the amendment. Since Delta Sigma Rho is an honor, not a social, organization, it is an absurdity if not a tragedy that he is barred. Most of you know something of his record. He became one of the most effective debaters in Reserve’s list of skilled and forceful debaters. At Madision last spring he won first place in the Public Discussion competition of the national invitation speech tournament of Delta Sigma Rho in a field of 36 competitors, scattered all the way from California to Louisiana. He was also one of our debaters who tied for second place in the debate competition of the same tournament....Later he did what no other Reserve man had ever done in the six years of our membership in the Northern Oratorical League - won first place. He is not only a clear thinker and an excellent speaker but he is a gentleman. His fellow students with whom he worked feel that Delta Sigma Rho makes a most unfortunate discrimination.”

On 10/16/1934 the WRU chapter again voted in favor of the amendment. In 1935 the amendment passed with 53 chapter votes yes and 5 chapter votes no. The 53rd vote was received 4/15/1935 by the national office and Woodward was informed via a letter of 4/18/1935 by Professor H. L. Ewbank of the University of Wisconsin, president of Delta Sigma Rho. On 4/26/1935 Woodward sent a letter to Ewbank notifying him that the WRU chapter had unanimously voted membership for John Cobbs and Albert Turner. Woodward wrote, “We are delighted finally to have the privilege of doing this.”

While Cobbs was working in the Cleveland area in 1935, Turner was teaching at Tuskegee Institute. On 5/1/1935 Turner wrote to Woodward, “I was indeed happy to receive the telegram bearing the news of my election to Delta Sigma Rho. I consider it a great honor to me, and a remarkable proof of the fair attitude of Western Reserve towards all of its students and alumni.

“However, it is to you Professor Woodward, that I am especially indebted and especially grateful. As proud as I am of my election to Delta Sigma Rho, I am more deeply moved by the fact that you have remembered me and my work after thirteen years....”

You can read past blog entries about African-American history at Case Western Reserve University from 2013 and 2011.

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