Dr Henry McNeal Turner


Dr Henry McNeal Turner

Newberry, Newberry County, South Carolina, USA
Death 8 May 1915 (aged 81)
Windsor, Essex County, Ontario, Canada
Burial Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia, USA
Memorial ID 14775222 View Source

Minister, politician. He was one of the most influential African American leaders in the late-nineteenth century, a pioneering church organizer and missionary for the A.M.E. church in Georgia, later rising to the rank of bishop. He also was an outspoken defender of African American rights, a prominent leader of back-to-Africa movements, and a supporter of the American Colonization Society. He was raised by his mother and grandmother. It was his grandmother who instilled in him a sense of pride in his African heritage. From an early age, he envisioned becoming a leader of his people. He later left the cotton fields and moved to the city and worked as a janitor in a law office. There he became exposed to books on philosophy, religion and the law; as a result, he was able to learn to read and write. While he was a teenager, he experienced a powerful religious conversion during a Methodist camp meeting and soon decided to pursue a career in the ministry. In 1853 the 19-year old became a traveling evangelist for the Methodist Episcopal Church-South. In 1858 he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and during the next five years served as a minister to three different congregations in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. In 1863, when the Union army began accepting African American enlistments, he raised the first black regiment of the Civil War and was commissioned as its chaplain by President Abraham Lincoln. He was also given a position in the Freedmen's Bureau in Macon, Georgia after the Civil War. During Reconstruction in Georgia, his two great objectives were to build the A.M.E. church and the Republican party in order to organize African American political power. He scoured the state traveling fifteen thousand miles in fulfillment of these goals. Generally, he was conciliatory toward white Georgians calling for lenient treatment of former rebels. In 1868, he was elected to the Georgia legislature along with twenty-five other African Americans. Their white colleagues promptly expelled the contingent. He gave a famous speech protesting the expulsion exclaiming, "I shall neither fawn or cringe before any party nor stoop to beg them for my rights. ...I am here to demand my rights and hurl thunderbolts at the men who dare to cross the threshold of my manhood." He became increasingly militant after the expulsion. He and his fellow legislators were restored to their sets in 1870 by the federal government amid a wave of Klan terror. The activists and politician often had to sleep outside his home in order to avoid the terrorists who attempted to murder him. After reconstruction ended in Georgia, he worked in many areas. He became the strongest advocate until the ascension of Marcus Garvey, for African Americans collaborating with Africans including living and building institutions in Africa. He also continued to help build the A.M.E. church as editor of its periodicals before becoming a bishop. He was one of the founders of Atlanta's Morris Brown College serving as one of its early chancellors. He donated some of his land so that a public school for African Americans could be built. He was steadfast in his resistance to discrimination-leading protests in the 1890s through the early 1900s against segregated Atlanta streetcars. As a result of his persistence to fight for political and social equality, he became a hero to African American Georgians, especially to the working class. During the early twentieth century he made a conservative shift, siding with the conciliatory Booker T. Washington rather than the more militant W.E.B. DuBois. He became close to becoming a national leader in the mold of Frederick Douglass or Booker T. Washington. But in the end, his outspokenness on the Africa issue undermined him. He later died of a stroke in Canada while attending an A.M.E. gathering. His funeral in Atlanta was attended by an estimated 25,000 people.Turner was born "free" in Newberry Courthouse, South Carolina . Instead of being sold into slavery, his family sent him to live with a Quaker family. The law at the time of his birth prevented a black child from being taught to read or write. Assisted by some sympathetic whites and through observation at a law firm, where he worked as a caretaker, he learned to read and write. He received his preacher's license from the Methodist Church South in 1853. He traveled through the south for a few years as an evangelist. In 1856, Turner was married for the first time and would outlive 3 of his four wives. Turner had 14 children, four of which lived to adulthood. Henry was inspired by a Methodist revival and swore to become a pastor. In 1858 he transferred his membership to the African Methodist Church and studied the classics, Hebrew, and divinity at Trinity College. In 1880, he became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

During the American Civil War, he was appointed a Chaplain to one of the first Federal regiments of black troops (Company B of the First United States Colored Troops). Turner was the first of only 14 black Chaplains to be appointed during the Civil War. This appointment came directly from President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. He was also appointed by President Andrew Johnson to work with the Freedman's Bureau in Georgia during Reconstruction.

Following the Civil War, he became steadily more disenchanted with the lack of progress in the status of the country's African-Americans. During this time he moved to the state of Georgia. It was here that he became involved in Radical Republican politics. He helped found the Republican Party of Georgia. After attempts to overcome certain Supreme Court decisions, Turner became disgusted and ended his attempts to bring equality to the United States. Instead, Turner became a proponent of the "back to Africa" and "African American colonization" movements. He traveled to Africa and was struck by the differences in the attitude of Africans who had never known the degradation of slavery. He organized four annual conferences in Africa.

Mr. Turner ran for political office but here, too, he faced racial barriers. He was, in fact, elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1868. However, the Democratic Party had control of the legislature at the time. The party then used their majority to prevent Henry M. Turner, as well as 26 other black legislators, from taking their seats during the opening session. After a protest from Washington, Turner and his fellow legislators were able to take their seats during the second session.

He wrote extensively about the war and about the condition of his parishioners. His reputation was besmirched by charges of promiscuity(by who?). He died while visiting Windsor, Ontario in 1915. He was highly regarded in the Afro-American and the Afro-Canadian community and a large number of churches are named in his honor. One church, Turner Chapel, is located in Oakville, Ontario. It was built by men and women who had fled the Fugitive slave laws of the United States.

He was known as a fiery orator and he scandalized many Americans when he preached that God was black.
Here are his words:
"We have as much right biblically and otherwise to believe that God is a Negroe, as you buckra or white people have to believe that God is a fine-looking, symmetrical, and ornamented white man. For the bulk of you and all the fool, Negroes of the country believe that God is white-skinned, blue-eyed, straight-haired, projected-nosed, compressed lipped and finely-robed white gentleman, sitting upon a throne somewhere in the heavens. Every race of people who have attempted to describe their God by words, or by paintings, or by carvings, or any other form or figure, have conveyed the idea that the God who made them and shaped their destinies was symbolized in themselves, and why should not the Negroe believe that he resembles God."

Turner was the first AME Bishop to recognize the ordination of women to the order of Deacon. Turner would later not continue this practice because of controversy and threats. Bishop Turner left a widespread legacy that continues to grow. Turner supported prohibition and Women's suffrage movements during and after the 1880s.

Turner Theological Seminary, a constituent seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, was named in his honor. Also, the post office and federal building in Macon Georgia, is named in his honor.

Bio by: Curtis Jackson

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