From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Roberts, Turner W. [Turner Roberts v. Commonwealth]

(born: 1808) 

Reverend Turner Roberts was an early challenger to Kentucky laws against free African Americans migrating to Kentucky. Rev. Roberts was a free man from Indian, he was an African Methodist Episcopal minister who was ordained in 1845. He had been active in the church for several years. In 1848, he was visiting Louisville, KY, where he had stayed for 30 days. He was arrested under the Kentucky statute that prohibited the migration of free Negroes into Kentucky. Rev. Roberts had also not given bond and therefore could not leave the state; a $500 bond was required of free Negroes coming into Kentucky for brief periods of stay. Rev.

Turner Roberts had stayed too long. The punishment was that Rev. Roberts was sold for a 12 month term of servitude. Rev. Roberts appealed his case, Turner Roberts v. Commonwealth, contending that the law was unconstitutional and void due to its conflict with the 2nd section of the 4th article of the Constitution of the United States. "The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of the several States." Rev. Roberts lost his appeal [source: "The Case of Turner Roberts," Niles' National Register, v.74, July 1848-January 1849, pp.248-250 (online at Google Books); and "The Kentucky Slave Law," The Friend: a religious and literary journal, edited by Robert Smith, 1849, v.22, p.43]. According to The North Star newspaper, as transcribed within the Accessible Archives Database, Rev. Turner Roberts was freed in 1848 because the Kentucky law had been declared unconstitutional [source: "The Kentucky Negro Preacher," The North Star, 10/06/1848].

Rev. Roberts may have been freed from servitude in October of 1848, but this has not been verified; however, the law concerning free Negroes migrating to Kentucky was not found unconstitutional in 1848. What is known for sure is that by 1850 Rev. Turner Roberts was a free man, he is listed as a mulatto in the 1850 U.S. Census. Rev. Turner Roberts was born around 1808 in North Carolina. He and his wife Louisa had four children: Charles, James, Mary, and Catherine. Rev. Roberts' brother, Jack Roberts, lived with the family in Indianapolis, IN. In the 1860 Census, Rev. Roberts was a barber in Indianapolis. His home was located at 54 Blackford Street [source: p.219 in the Indianapolis Directory and Business Mirror for 1861]. In 1867, he lived at 216 N. Blackford Street [source: p.352 Edward's Annual Directory of the City of Indianapolis 1867]. For more about Rev. Turner Roberts see Reclaiming African Heritage at Salem Indiana by C. D. Robbins, pp.85 & 87.

*Generous assistance with this entry was provided by University of Kentucky law librarians Franklin L. Runge and Beau Steenken. They provided the following time line and sources that can be found in the University of Kentucky Law Library.


  • Turner Roberts would have been charged under the law from 1808 (as amended in 1838).
  • February 1808: In the December 1807 session, which spilled over into February 1808, the Kentucky Legislature enacted legislation to "prevent migration of free negroes and mulattoes to this state."
  • 1834: This document is included as a statutory update to see if there had been any changes to the law from 1808 to 1838. It appears as if the statutory language remained consistent. There was an additional law passed about free citizens that might be of interest.
  • 1838: There was an amendment to the statute on migration. The amendment allowed for a jury trial and expanded the types of courts that could hear these cases. Additionally, in 1840, there was a statute passed about helping runaway slaves.
  • 1850: Kentucky adopts a new constitution. The 10th article is about slavery, and commands the Kentucky Legislature to deny free blacks the ability to migrate to the state.
  • 1851: The Kentucky Legislature "refreshes" its laws on slaves and free blacks. The last section re-commits Kentucky to denying the migration of free blacks to Kentucky.


  1. The Statute Law of Kentucky, V.3. XVI Year of the Commonwealth. Chapter DI. An ACT to prevent the future emigration of Free Negroes and Mulattoes to this State. Approved February 23, 1808. pp.499-501.
  2. Digest of the Statute Laws of Kentucky, v.2, 1834. Title 124. Mulattoes and Free Negroes. pp.1219-1223.
  3. Digest of the Statute Laws of Kentucky, 1842. Title 77. Mulattos and Free Negroes. pp.463-464.
  4. Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, Article Tenth. [1850]. Concerning Slaves. Section 1. pp.27-28.
  5. Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, November Session, 1850, V.1. Chapter XV. Slaves, Runaways, Free Negroes, and Emancipation. pp.291-308.
  6. The Passenger Cases and the commerce clause: immigrants, blacks, and states' rights in antebellum America by T. A. Fryer.

Kentucky County & Region

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Roberts, Turner W. [Turner Roberts v. Commonwealth],” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed June 23, 2024,

Last modified: 2024-06-14 19:43:19