Henry McNeal Turner Facts
Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915), African American leader and a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, argued for African American emigration to Africa.
Henry M. Turner was born free near Abbeville, S.C., on Feb. 1, 1834. Unable to go to school because of state laws, he was "apprenticed" in local cotton fields but ran away and found a job as sweeper in a law office. The young clerks surreptitiously taught him to read and write. He was converted to Christianity and at age 20 was licensed as a traveling evangelist for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. He preached to white and black audiences throughout the South until 1858. When he learned of the all-black African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), he joined it.
In Baltimore, Turner studied languages and Scripture as well as his new Church. In 1862 he moved to a church in Washington, D.C. His fiery sermons earned him the title "Black Spurgeon" (a reference to a famous English sermonizer of the day). Congressmen attended his preaching, and Turner frequented the Capitol to watch politicians in action. After emancipation of the slaves in 1863, he agitated for putting black troops into the Civil War and was commissioned the first black chaplain in the Union Army.
After the war Turner was assigned to the Freedmen's Bureau in Georgia, but he resigned to recruit blacks for his Church and, later, to organize them for the Republican party. He participated in the Georgia constitutional convention of 1868 and later was elected to the legislature. When blacks were refused their seats in the legislature, Turner was appointed postmaster at Macon, Ga., and then a customs inspector at Savannah. Meanwhile, in 1876, he was elected manager of the AME Book Concern, and in 1880 he was elected one of a dozen bishops in the Church.
Turner was interested in Africa as a potential homeland for African Americans. His experiences in Reconstruction politics disillusioned him with white America, and after 1868 he urged talented young blacks to establish a nation in Africa which would give pride and encouragement to blacks everywhere. His writings and speeches in favor of pan-African nationalism and his scathing attacks on white racism antagonized many middle-class blacks but inspired many black farmers.
Turner wrote for Church and public newspapers. In Atlanta he founded the Southern Recorder (1888), the Voice of Missions (1892), and the Voice of the People (1901). He also published a catechism, a hymnal, and The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity (1885). When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Reconstruction civil rights laws in 1883, he issued a blistering attack in The Barbarous Decision of the Supreme Court…, revised as The Black Man's Doom (1896).
During the 1890s Turner visited Africa four times to supervise Church work and publicize emigration. In 1893 he summoned a national convention of Afro-American leaders to protest lynching and political attacks on blacks and get support for his emigration schemes. However, Turner's appeals were heeded only by poor blacks who could neither afford passage to Africa nor support themselves there. He continued his agitation, attracting nationwide attention in 1906, when he reportedly called the American flag a "dirty rag." He died in Windsor, Ontario, on May 8, 1915.
Further Reading on Henry McNeal Turner
Respect Black! Writings and Speeches of Henry M. Turner (1971), edited by E. S. Redkey, contains a selection of Turner's rhetoric on the race question. The only full-length biography of Turner is the early, uncritical work by Mungo M. Ponton, Life and Times of Henry M. Turner (1917). A brief biography of Turner appears in Historical Negro Biographies in the International Library of Negro Life and History, edited by Wilhelmena S. Robinson (1968), and a chapter on him is in W. J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1968). E. S. Redkey, Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910 (1969), focuses on Turner's emigrationist activities.