Wheaton Glennette Tilley Turner, was recently recognized for her work as a historian by the Illinois State Historical Society with a 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award.
Turner, 90, has devoted much of her life to researching the history of the Underground Railroad which the National Park Service defines as “the resistance to enslavement through escape and flight, through the end of the Civil War.”
“It’s such an important recognition of my work,” said Turner. “History is so important. It gives a sense of place like nothing else. When you study history, you have a greater appreciation for where you live.”
A Wheaton resident since 1968, Turner is a public historian, teacher, author, lecturer, consultant and community activist.
Currently serving on the DuPage County Historical Museum Foundation board and the DuPage County Historical Society, she taught primary grades at Longfellow Elementary School for many years while exploring the area’s history.
Turner has been honored with numerous awards over the years for her work which has centered on the previously little-known history of the Underground Railroad in Illinois.
She also has had a long-time interest in the African-American community in Wheaton.
Her accolades include being named DuPage County’s Outstanding Woman Educator by the Illinois General Assembly.
She was also honored with the Golden Kite Honor Book for Excellence in Children’s Literature by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and the Wilbur Henry Siebert Award from the National Park Service in recognition of her excellence in the field of Underground Railroad research.
She has written 12 children’s books about history and the Underground Railroad. Some of her works are available in the Museum shop.
“The Illinois Underground Railroad has all the surprise of a spellbinding mystery, the excitement of a great adventure and, best of all, it happened here,” she said.
Turner was born in Raleigh, North Carolina and moved to Illinois to live with relatives while she attended Aurora West High School, then Lake Forest College, and earned her masters degree at Goddard.
She said she began her research into Underground Railroad activity in Wheaton after a neighbor made a chance remark claiming such involvement.
Turner could not imagine this because she’d “always thought it was something that took place east of Illinois,” she said.
Her first stop was the DuPage County Historical Museum and where she consulted with the Museum’s then-curator, Margaret Dunton.
Turner said she is currently working on a next book which is about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. She said she once had the opportunity to meet Harriet Tubman’s grand-niece, who shared stories of her great-aunt’s heroic efforts to free slaves.
She was presented with the Illinois State Historical Society’s 2023 Lifetime Achievement Award on April 29, 2023 at a ceremony for the “Best of Illinois History” award winners at the Hoogland Center for the Arts in Springfield. Awards were presented at the Society’s 124th annual meeting.
“The Best of Illinois History awards are the Society’s annual recognition of achievement in public history throughout the state,” said ISHS Executive Director William Furry. “History brings out passion in people, passion for the past and the lives of those who came before us. It also gives us hope, reminding us of hardships others endured to prepare us for the storms we might face in the future.”