Turpin, Waters E.

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Waters E. Turpin


Waters Edward Turpin was a groundbreaking author who became prominent during the Harlem Renaissance. Driven by the need to write but full of self-doubt and uncertainty throughout much of his writing career, Turpin juggled the role of being the family breadwinner with his desire for independence. One catalyst for Turpin in his pursuit of a writing career may have been the racial discrimination he saw everyday as well as their uneven representation in literature. Turpin used his writing to protest the socio-economic and political plight of African Americans and to portray the courageous black men and women who helped to shape their race, culture, and the United States. Turpin's promise as a writer was never completely fulfilled; however, Turpin began the process which may have motivated African American authors such as Alex Haley who went on to write the saga of his own family.

Turpin was born April 9, 1910 in Oxford, Maryland, the only child of Mary Rebecca Henry and Simon Turpin. Turpin's father died when he was three years old, and thus Turpin's maternal grandfather played a large role in Turpin's life. Turpin's grandfather's stories about the struggles of black people on the eastern shore of Maryland were to remain as vivid memories throughout Turpin's life and helped to shape Turpin as a writer.

Turpin's dream since childhood was to become an educator and in that way to advance the lot of African Americans. In 1922 Turpin moved to New Jersey when his mother was hired by Edna Ferber as a cook and household manager. Mrs. Turpin ultimately ran the Ferber household and was Ferber's confidante. Turpin was sent to Morgan Preparatory Academy during his high school years. This school was a stepping-stone into Morgan College, now Morgan State University. During time off from school, Turpin stayed with his mother in New York. Ferber was quite impressed with Turpin's intelligence and encouraged Turpin to write; she acted as mentor and advisor sometimes assisting Turpin's entrance into literary circles.

Turpin began pursuing a B.A. in English at Morgan College in 1927. During his final years at Morgan, Turpin and some of his fellow students, including his future wife Jean Fisher, began a school newspaper, the Morgan Newsletter of which Turpin served as editor.

Turpin became a welfare investigator in the early 1930s for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided work for millions of people during the depression. Finally in 1935, Turpin, with the help of Edna Ferber, obtained a job at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia as an English professor, counselor, and football coach. Now defunct, Storer was the first college for African Americans in West Virginia.

While still at Storer, Turpin began writing his first novel, These Low Grounds, and began working on his M.A. in English at Columbia. These Low Grounds tells the story of the lives and struggles of four generations of an African American family beginning with Martha, a freed slave who becomes a housemaid, through her great grandson Jimmy who is an athlete with dreams of becoming a teacher and returning to his hometown in Maryland to improve the lives of his fellow men. These Low Grounds, published in 1937 by Harper and republished by McGrath in 1969, was the forerunner of family history legacies such as Alex Haley's Roots.

In 1937, Turpin married Jean Fisher. Turpin's marriage was unconventional in that for most of their married life, Turpin did not live with Fisher. Despite this arrangement, Turpin's wife was one of his biggest supporters.

Repeatedly throughout his writing career, Turpin struggled with the development of characters past the physical aspects (i.e. who they were as people, their thoughts, feelings, and motivation for their actions). Turpin also struggled with the conflict between his need to write and his need to provide for his family. Attempting to resolve this conflict, Turpin applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to support his writing a five-novel series which would trace one family back to its roots in Africa. The proposal included extensive research in the United States and Africa. While Turpin's wife and mother were supportive, Turpin sometimes felt emasculated by them. In fact, Turpin felt that African American women, in general, caused the men in their lives to be less than men. This theme was dealt with in Turpin's Long Way Home.


Born in Oxford, Maryland on April 9
Father Simon dies
Mother accepts job with Edna Ferber; moves with Turpin to New Jersey
Receives B.A. in English from Morgan State College; begins work as a welfare fraud investigator for the Works Progress Administration
Completes M.A. in English from Columbia University
Begins teaching English at Storer College in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
Marries Jean Fisher
Publishes first novel These Low Grounds
Leaves Storer College to work on doctorate at Columbia University
Publishes second novel O Canaan!
Begins teaching English at Lincoln University
Named Julius Rosenwald Fellow in Creative Writing
Begins teaching English at Morgan State College
Self-publishes third novel The Rootless
Receives Ed.D. from Columbia University
Dies of abdominal cancer in Baltimore, Maryland on November 19

Turpin completed his M.A. in English at Columbia and began working on a doctorate in education in 1939. Turpin's second novel O Canaan!, published by Dou-bleday and reprinted by AMS Press in 1975, was the second novel in Turpin's five-part series. This book explores the efforts of blacks to survive in the northern U.S. cities. Rather than focusing on the negatives, Turpin wrote about hope and the importance of family values. Turpin addresses such themes as inter-racial tension and bigotry and the clashing of different values within a family. Turpin called the novel O Canaan! because of the parallel between blacks in the United States and the ancient Hebrews who traveled in search of a homeland where they could live happily in freedom and peace. The novel is divided into four parts with each part focusing on a different family member. In a February 1949 speech about the novel, Turpin stated that his purpose was not to portray what happened just to blacks, but to all people regardless of race who have persevered despite hard times.

Despite his literary successes, Turpin continued to be plagued by the need to be independent. In hopes of lessening his stress, Turpin's wife, mother, and Edna Ferber put in motion a series of events which ultimately led to Turpin landing a job at Lincoln University. Despite his misgivings about the help he received in getting the job at Lincoln, Turpin quickly proved himself and became a valued faculty member and a favorite among Lincoln University students.

Education Career

In March 1941 Turpin was named the Julius Rosen-wald Fellow in Creative writing. Turpin took a leave of absence from Lincoln University to go to Baltimore to conduct the research necessary to fulfill the terms of the grant that would lead to the writing of But the Earth Remains, which was to explore the life of a free Maryland black man prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Instead Turpin worked full-time on the The Rootless from the summer 1941 until spring 1942. The third novel in Turpin's series, The Rootless, looks at slavery from the slaves' point of view. This novel is by far Turpin's most controversial, so much so that his wife and mother urged him not to publish it, stating the American public was not ready for his debunking of the myth of the white woman's sexual purity during slavery. This novel was finished sometime between 1945 and 1950. Turpin acquiesced and put the book aside. The Rootless was not published until 1957. By this time Turpin had fallen from literary favor and was unable to find a publisher. The book was self-published by Turpin, and only one thousand copies were printed. In the end, Turpin gave away more copies than were sold, so the book received little if any acclaim and it did not incite the anticipated criticism.

In July 1948 Turpin took another leave of absence from Lincoln University, initially to return to Columbia to finish his doctorate. Instead he went to Baltimore and began teaching at Morgan State College in 1949. It was the first time in his marriage that he and his wife lived together on a full-time basis. Turpin continued to teach at Morgan until his death on November 19, 1968. The years at Morgan State were bittersweet. Turpin was a gifted professor much sought after by his students. He assisted with drama productions at Morgan State. However, the more he invested as an educator the less he invested in his life as a writer. Turpin mentored and advised students who like him were interested in creative writing. In the late 1950s, Morgan State began putting pressure on its faculty to obtain terminal degrees and to obtain membership and become active in professional organizations that accepted people of all races. Turpin became a member of the executive board of the National Council of Teachers of English, and he completed his doctorate in education, receiving his Ed.D. from Columbia University in 1960.

Turpin completed only two books of the five-novel series he had originally intended. While he never enjoyed the fame of Langston Hughes or Richard Wright, his literary and professional life was multifaceted. He coau-thored five English textbooks and published in journals such as the Negro History Bulletin, Phylon, and the CLA Journal. He also wrote short stories, poetry, and five plays. Turpin gave numerous speeches, lectures, and made a forty-lecture television course. Turpin's final and unfinished novel, tentatively titled Long Way Home, was to deal with the role of black women as matriarchs' of their families. It was a subject on which Turpin and his wife Jean disagreed: he believed that black women often emasculated their men, Jean Turpin asserted that black women were forced into the role of family head by circumstances beyond their control.

Turpin was diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1968. He underwent surgery for the cancer but died on the operating table on November 19, 1968 in Baltimore, Maryland. Turpin never reached the heights he might have as a writer, but he contributed to many students' development at Storer College, Lincoln University, and Morgan State.



Thomas, Elizabeth. "Turpin, Waters Edward." Black Writers: A Selection of Sketches from Contemporary Authors. Ed. Linda Metzger. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1989.


Fleming, Robert E. "Overshadows by Richard Wright: Three Black Chicago Novelists." Negro American Literature Forum 37 (Autumn 1973): 75-79.

Ford, Nick A. "Waters Turpin: I Knew Him Well." CLA Journal 21 (September 1977): 1-18.


Waters Edward Turpin Collection (1949–68) is located at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.

                                   Anne K. Driscoll