William H. Turner, Ph.D., the fifth of 10 children, was born in 1946 in the coal town of Lynch, Kentucky, in Harlan County. His grandfathers, father, four uncles and older brother were coal miners. He earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from UK and a doctorate in sociology from the University of Notre Dame. In addition, he attended the Foreign Affairs Scholars Program at Howard University and did postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University.
During his academic career, Turner served as chair of the Department of Social Sciences at Winston-Salem State University; dean of Arts and Sciences and interim president at Kentucky State University; vice president for multicultural affairs at UK; and distinguished professor of Appalachian Studies and regional ambassador at Berea College. When he retired in late 2017, Turner was research scientist leader at the Prairie View A&M University College of Agriculture and Human Sciences, where he led the collection and analysis of data on underserved Texans.
Turner has spent his professional career studying and working on behalf of marginalized communities, helping them create opportunities in the larger world while not abandoning their important cultural ties. He is best-known for his ground-breaking research on African American communities in Appalachia. As an academic and a consultant, he has studied economic systems and social structures in the urban South and burgeoning Latino communities in the Southwest. He co-edited the textbook Blacks in Appalachia and thematic essays on Black Appalachians in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, and he worked as a research associate (1979–1991) to Roots author Alex Haley.
He received an honorary doctorate from the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2020. In addition, the Appalachian Studies Association honored Turner for a lifetime of service to the Appalachian region, and he was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2007.