Turner, Henry McNeal 1834–1915
Henry McNeal Turner 1834–1915
Clergyman, activist, author
Henry McNeal Turner was for many years the leading advocate of black migration to Africa as the only permanent solution to the problem of race discrimination in the United States. As bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), Turner was a highly vocal and vehement critic of white America’s continued oppression of its black citizens, and he became natural heir to nineteenth-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass as chief spokesman for black pride and self-determination. Turner’s firsthand experience of white resistance to equality among the races led him to embrace the cause of African migration even before the rise of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. His “back to Africa” campaign never won effective support from a majority of African Americans, but Turner remained one of the most powerful black leaders during the difficult years of widespread economic distress and segregation enforced by Jim Crow laws.
Turner was born to a family of free blacks in South Carolina in 1834. Although not slaves, the impoverished Turners found it necessary to put their children to work picking cotton side by side with slaves, and Henry’s earliest memories were of hard labor under the hot Carolina sun. Already of a proud and defiant temperament, Turner ran away from home as a young teenager and found work as an office boy with a law firm. He swept floors and washed windows for a few pennies per day, but some of the law clerks noticed Turner’s unusually bright and curious mind and offered to teach the young man how to read and write. (In most parts of the South, this was a criminal act.) Turner responded quickly to their help and soon became not only literate, but a powerful speaker as well. While still in his teens, the broad-shouldered, powerfully built Turner was offered a position as an itinerant minister by the Methodist Episcopal Church—South, beginning a career in the church that would continue for the remaining sixty-five years of his life.
Throughout the 1850s Turner traveled widely in the deep South, preaching to slaves and free blacks under the auspices of the white-controlled Methodist Episcopal Church. Though himself a free man, Turner everywhere encountered the humiliations and restraints placed upon people of color in the prewar South, and he was not of a nature to suffer such indignities in silence. In 1858, Turner
At a Glance…
Born in 1834, near Abbeville, SC; died in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, May 8,1915; buried in Atlanta, GA; son of Hardy and Sarah (Green) Turner; married four times, in 1856,1893,1900, and to fourth wife, Laura Pearl Lemon, in 1907. Education: African Methodist Episcopal (AME) training in theology, 1858-60, Religion: AME. Politics: Republican during Civil War; later, black nationalist.
Traveling preacher for Methodist Episcopal Church—South, 1851-57; joined African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1858, became deacon, 1860, and elder, 1862; pastor of Union Bethel Church, Washington, DC, 1862-65; appointed first black U.S. Army chaplain by Abraham Lincoln, 1863; worked briefly as an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau following the Union victory to the Civil War; organized AME churches and missions in Georgia, 1865-67; delegate to Georgia constitutional convention, 1867; member of the Georgia state legislature, 1868; church pastor in Savannah, GA, 1870-76; business manager, AME Book Concern, Philadelphia, 1876-80; elected AME bishop, 1880; established Morris Brown College, Atlanta, c. 1890, and served as president for twelve years; traveled to Africa four times, 1891-98; organized national convention of African Americans, Cincinnati, OH, 1893; headed Georgia Equal Rights Association, 1906.
Author of The Genius and Theory of Methodist Policy, 1885; founder of Southern Christian Recorder, Voice of Missions, and Voice of the People; author of editorials.
Member: American Colonization Society (elected president, 1876).
first heard of a Christian denomination run by and for blacks, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he immediately joined its mission in Baltimore.
The AME had been founded in Philadelphia in 1794 and was extensively represented in the northern half of the United States, but the threat posed to southern slaveowners by any all-black organization had prohibited its growth in the South. At the church’s training mission in Baltimore, Turner studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and theology with professors from nearby Trinity College. He was appointed deacon in 1860 and two years later elevated to the rank of elder.
Upon completion of his training, Turner was named pastor of the Union Bethel Church in Washington, D.C., the capital’s largest black church. Turner was outspoken in his support for President Abraham Lincoln’s general emancipation of the slaves in 1863, and equally so in his call for the use of black troops in the Union Army during the Civil War. Once this became federal policy, the first black troops from the Washington area were mustered in the Union Bethel churchyard, and President Lincoln named Turner the first black chaplain in the history of the United States. Turner served his soldiers with great distinction, accompanying them into the field of battle while carrying out his duties as chaplain. The successful completion of the Union victory filled Turner with high hopes for the future of black Americans, and he joined the government’s Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia to help blacks make the transition from slavery to freedom.
Turner soon found that racial discrimination was as strong as ever in Georgia, and he resigned from the Freedmen’s Bureau after a short tenure to return to the AME. As would be true throughout his life, Turner preferred to work within all-black organizations rather than endure the insults faced by blacks in an integrated setting. As head of the AME’s new mission in Georgia, he proved himself a tireless organizer, dispatching AME ministers to the remotest corners of the state, taking on the burdens of administration, and defending the AME and himself from the hostility of whites resentful of this new source of black independence. In the tense atmosphere of the postwar South, Turner’s aggressive manner earned him the hatred of many whites, but under his direction the AME flourished as never before.
At the same time Turner was asked to help organize Georgia’s blacks under the banner of the Republican Party (the party of Lincoln, and for many years of all African American leaders). He was elected as a Republican to the state constitutional convention in 1867, where he adopted a surprisingly conciliatory position on most questions of race and equal rights. At this point in his career, Turner was still optimistic about the future of race relations in America, and he believed that changes in race relations would evolve inevitably as whites and blacks learned to live together as fellow citizens.
When elected to the state legislature in 1868, however, Turner quickly learned otherwise: Georgia’s white legislators passed a bill forbidding blacks from holding elected office, so enraging Turner that he led a delegation of African American representatives in a walkout from the capitol building. Before leaving the legislative chamber, Turner unleashed the full fury of his wrath in a speech that amazed whites and encouraged blacks everywhere. As quoted in a record of the Georgia state legislature, he proclaimed: “I am here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the man who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. . . . Never in the history of the world has a man been . . . charged with the offense of being of a darker hue than his fellow men.”
Turner’s disillusionment with the political process was redoubled the following year when he was forced to resign a federal appointment as postmaster of Macon, Georgia, after protests by local whites. His Washington connections did manage to secure Turner a minor job in the customs office of Savannah, Georgia, where he resumed full-time church duties as well; but his frustrations in the political arena had permanently altered his thinking about race relations in the United States. As early as 1862 the young clergyman had been impressed with the idea of African emigration for black Americans, and after his firsthand experience of the depth of white racism in the Reconstruction era, Turner returned to the dream of an African nation for blacks. The idea of African emigration was not new—as early as 1817 the American Colonization Society had begun the settlement of black Americans in Liberia, on the west coast of Africa—but Turner would become its most articulate and passionate nineteenth-century proponent.
Elected bishop in the AME in 1880, Turner used both pulpit and press to argue for the necessity of an African homeland for black Americans. He viewed as hopeless the efforts of blacks to achieve a decent life in the United States; racism was so ingrained in the American character, Turner believed, that people of color would never gain respect while living on American soil. Even if whites were to treat blacks with the best of intentions—which in the post-Reconstruction era they most emphatically did not— blacks would still suffer the psychic damage of living in a society founded, ruled, and defined by white culture. As cited by John Dittmer in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, Turner wrote in 1898: “As long as we remain among the whites, the Negro will believe that the devil is black. . . that he [as a black person] is the devil. . . and the effect of such sentiment is contemptuous and degrading.” It was his insistence on black pride and black nationalism that set apart Turner from earlier proponents of emigration, many of whom were southern whites hoping to purge the country of its black population.
Turner’s black nationalism was equally emphatic in the religious arena. “God is a Negro,” he often repeated, pointing out that every culture had always imagined God as one of its own. Such statements were infuriating to segments of white society, but Turner’s brilliant oratory and message of black pride won him a huge following among the majority of southern blacks, for whom life as “free men” had become nearly unendurable in the face of continued white oppression. As bishop in the AME, Turner traveled constantly throughout the southern states and Indian territories, preaching his doctrine of African migration and openly scorning those many black leaders who thought him too radical for the times. Indeed, Turner was always at the center of controversy, whether for his firebrand proclamations (“Negro, Get Guns” was the title of one of his editorials) or for such irregularities as ordaining a woman deacon in 1888 or marrying for the fourth time at the age of 73.
African emigration remained the polestar of Bishop Turner’s life and thought. African Americans needed “an outlet, a theater of manhood and activity established somewhere for our young men and women,” he noted in an 1883 edition of Christian Reporter. “Until we have black men in the seat of power, respected, feared, hated, and reverenced, our young men will never rise.” To further his dream of an African homeland, Turner urged the United States government to provide funds for the transportation of “5 or 10,000” blacks to Liberia every year, and he himself made the first of four trips to Africa in 1891.
Believing that the conversion of Africa to Christianity was part of God’s plan for black Americans, Turner busily established churches and schools in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and later in South Africa. Everything he saw in Africa reaffirmed his belief in emigration for blacks, and back in the United States Turner organized a national convention for African Americans to meet in Cincinnati in 1893. The convention was attended by more than 800 delegates from around the country, Turner delivering a keynote speech which touched on the subject of emigration; but his plea for Africa as “the only hope of the Negro race” was rejected by the gathering, and Turner was forced to admit that his program was not acceptable to the majority of educated black Americans.
An even more serious blow to Turner’s campaign was the bad publicity generated by the sending of two ships of black Americans to Liberia in the mid-1890s. Although reports varied, it appears that most of the colonists did not like or could not survive Liberia’s tropical climate and backward economy. Many of the emigrants died of fever or made their way back to the United States, where their stories of hardship were widely publicized by the black press as proof of the folly of Bishop Turner’s ideas. Turner reacted to the criticism with his usual scorn, referring, as quoted by Dittmer, to the failed emigrants as “shiftless no-account Negroes. . . accustomed to being fed and driven around by white men.” The mismanaged expeditions effectively ended any real hope for a large-scale emigration to Africa by black Americans.
In 1895 Booker T. Washington seized black leadership with his speech at the Atlanta Exposition, in which he promised African Americans that if they remained patient and hard-working, they would eventually be accepted as equals by white society. Washington respected Bishop Turner as a powerful leader, especially among lower-class blacks, and the two men did not openly clash; but Washington’s philosophy of accommodation had clearly prevailed.
Turner spent the balance of his life as an unapologetic and still virulent critic of America’s social injustices. Though yielding to Booker T. Washington the title of national spokesperson for blacks in the United States, Turner remained a man of considerable power in both religious and political affairs. He was not above making alliances with southern white politicians of every variety, since he held all white leaders in similar contempt; and, as elder bishop of the AME for the last twenty years of his life, Turner’s was the dominant voice in a church of some quarter million members. His last significant public role was as head of the Georgia Equal Rights Association, formed in 1906 by Turner, W. E. B. Du Bois, and other leading black figures. Turner’s dream of African emigration already seemed outdated to younger men like Du Bois, but no one could deny the seventy-two-year-old bishop the courage of his words when he addressed the Georgia Equal Rights Association convention: “I used to love what I thought was the grand old flag, and sing with ecstasy about the stars and stripes,” Dittmer quoted him as saying, “but to the Negro in this country the American flag is a dirty and contemptible rag.” Turner died nine years later, his funeral attended by 25,000 mourners.
Angell, Stephen W., Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African-American Religion in the South, University of Tennessee Press, 1992.
Dittmer, John, essay included in Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Drago, Edmund L., Black Politicians and Reconstruction in Georgia: A Splendid Failure, Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Redkey, Edwin S., Respect Black: The Writings and Speeches of Henry McNeal Turner, Ayer Company Publications, 1971.
Wilmore, Gayraud S., Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People, Orbis Books, 1983.
Christian Reporter, 1883.
Ebony, February 1993.
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Turner, Henry McNeal (1834-1915)
Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915)
African methodist episcopal bishop
Nothing but Freedom. Henry McNeal Turner, the best-known evangelist among former slaves, was himself born free on 1 February 1834. His father died when he was young, and Turner was raised by his mother and grandmother until 1848, when Sarah Greer Turner married Jabez Story and the family moved to Abbeville, South Carolina. There he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (Methodism had only recently separated into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery). Turner found work as a janitor in a law firm, and his employers, impressed with his desire to learn, taught him reading, arithmetic, geography, history, law, and theology. However, religion, not law, was to be his career. A white Methodist circuit rider, Robert Jones Boyd, issued him a license as an exhorter in 1851 and another as a preacher in 1853. In December 1854 he obtained a guardian, John McLauren, and court papers that permitted him to leave his hometown and served as proof of his freedom, protecting him from slave patrols who might capture him for a reward.
Preaching in Whispers. Turner became a circuit rider himself, traveling throughout the Deep South to plantations and communities of free blacks. He was in a difficult position. Many churches, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, accepted slavery as God’s will. Also, even though churches accepted slavery, state governments did not trust black preachers, and many states required that at least one white male be present at black religious services to monitor the sermons. It must have been a relief when in 1857 Turner discovered the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church while preaching in New Orleans. Yet Turner hesitated before changing his denominational affiliation because he had married Eliza Ann Peacher the previous year, and his work in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, allowed him to support his family. In 1858 Turner presided over a revival in Atlanta, and he converted to the AME Church and moved to Baltimore. There he simultaneously served as pastor of two churches, the Waters’ Chapel and the Tissue Street Mission, and studied English grammar, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. In 1860 he became pastor of the Union Bethel Church in Baltimore, where he was ordained a deacon (1860) and then an elder (1862). He also became pastor of the Israel Church in Washington, D.C., in 1862.
Military Chaplain. Turner’s first response to the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in April 1861 reflected his ministerial profession. He was appalled by the bloodshed and did not think the Civil War would serve any good purpose. In 1862 he studied the matter and concluded that God worked in mysterious ways and was using the war for the higher purpose of human freedom. Thus he was ready for the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Proclamation opened the way for blacks to join the armed forces. Turner’s assistant, Thomas H. ? Hinton, turned Israel Church into a recruiting center and organized the First Regiment of the United States Colored Troops. Turner himself volunteered to be a chaplain and received his commission on 6 November 1863. Some idea of his dedication to duty may be had by learning that he contracted smallpox when he visited troops confined to the hospital. He was equally concerned for his soldiers’ education, constantly soliciting donations of books, which he distributed to the troops. When a boat full of regimental supplies sank, he made sure to replace the lost spelling texts.
Political Leader. Turner’s commission expired at the end of 1865, and President Andrew Johnson appointed him to a chaplaincy in the regular army, assigning him to work with the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia. When Turner got to Georgia, he found that the unit to which he was assigned already had a chaplain and that the man in charge of Bureau operations in the state, Gen. Davis Tillson, was more sympathetic to whites than to former slaves. Turner soon resigned his army commission to organize the AME Church in the state. Part of that work involved political leadership, organizing blacks to protect their interests in the face of unrepentant Georgia Democrats. In 1866 Turner returned to Washington to make political contacts and to solicit funds for the black Georgians’ Equal Rights Association. By the next year he was urging black Georgians to join the Republican Party. From December 1867 to March 1868 he was a member of the Education Committee of the Atlanta Constitutional Convention, in which position he lobbied unsuccessfully for funds for black higher education and universal public elementary education. He served two terms in the state legislature, but his career as an elected civil servant soon came to a dramatic end. He had been elected partly on the strength of an alliance between blacks and poor whites, who had united to overcome the power of the state’s longtime political leaders, landowning white Democrats. Once elected, the whites wanted their black colleagues barred from the legislature, effective immediately. Turner and the other black representatives stood up, walked up the aisles among the seated white delegates to the door, and then, in biblical fashion, shook the dust from their feet. Turner’s final departure from politics was more ignominious. Congressional Republicans arranged for him to be appointed postmaster of Macon, Georgia. Local whites, though, did not want him to have the job. During this time, also, Turner was caught in a local scandal: he was seen in the company of a woman who was not only a confirmed counterfeiter, but a prostitute as well.
Bishop. Turner found new work in 1872 as pastor of Saint Philip’s AME Church in Savannah. In 1876 he moved from that job to a new one as head of the financially troubled church publishing department. A volume he wrote himself, The Hymn Book of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (1876), became a popular seller. On 14 May 1880 he was elected bishop and assigned to Georgia. In that capacity he not only worked to build up his own flock, but also labored to extend the AME faith. In addition, he traveled to Africa as a missionary, visiting Sierra Leone (1891), Liberia (1893), and South Africa (1898).
Institution Builder. Turner’s election as bishop was not a foregone conclusion. He smoked, claiming he had become addicted to tobacco during his youth, when one of his chores was to keep his grandmother’s pipe lit. Other Methodists took this breach of self-discipline seriously. Some also pointed out that the price of the rapid expansion of the AME in Georgia was the acceptance of many uneducated, even illiterate, ministers that compromised the status of the whole denomination. Nevertheless, Turner received the position and quickly became involved in the practical and theoretical aspects of church organization. Not only did he build up local churches, but he edited the newspaper Voice of Missions to develop a sense of unity in the denomination. He also wrote a book on The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity in 1885.
A Black Christian Identity. Turner both reacted to and shaped an emerging black identity. His experiences before, during, and after the Civil War convinced him that the federal and state governments were determined to marginalize blacks. Some would extend that analysis to Christianity, arguing that it was really a European religion whose doctrines were useful for oppressing and exploiting the poor by promising them that accepting the status quo on earth would lead to rewards in heaven. As a clergyman, though, Christianity meant liberation for Turner; personally, it gave him a professional career. For black people generally, Christianity promised that a just God would look after the oppressed, and it encouraged blacks not to revolt, but to develop useful strategies to improve their lot. Late in his life, Turner was impressed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible (1895-1898) and pondered whether it might not be desirable to do a translation and commentary on Scripture from an African American point of view.
Death. By the 1880s Turner was so disappointed in the prospects for blacks in the United States that he claimed he did not want to die in a place where his race was so maligned. Invited to preside over a church meeting in Canada, he had just disembarked from a ferry that carried him from Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, when he was felled by a massive stroke at the wharf. He died on 8 May 1915, and his body was brought back to Atlanta for burial.
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Henry McNeal Turner
Henry McNeal Turner
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 Decisionof 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.
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. □
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Excerpt from "I Claim the Rights of a Man"
Speech before the Georgia State Legislature, September 3, 1868
An expelled black senator defends his right to hold office
"God saw fit to vary everything in nature. There are no two men alike—no two voices alike—no two trees alike. God has weaved and tissued variety and versatility throughout the boundless space of His creation. Because God saw fit to make some red, and some white, and some black, and some brown, are we to sit here in judgment upon what God has seen fit to do?"
The North's victory in the Civil War in 1865 settled two important issues. First, it established that states were not allowed to leave, or secede from, the United States. Second, it put an end to slavery throughout the country. But the end of the war also raised a whole new set of issues. For example, federal lawmakers had to decide whether to punish the Confederate leaders for their rebellion. They also had to decide what process to use to readmit the Southern states to the Union, and how much assistance to provide in securing equal rights for the freed slaves. The period in American history immediately after the Civil War—when the country struggled to deal with these important and complicated issues—was called Reconstruction.
Reconstruction was a time of great political and social turmoil. President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875), who took office after Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) was assassinated in 1865, controlled the earliest Reconstruction efforts. Johnson said that the Southern states could form new state governments and be readmitted to the Union once they abolished (put an end to) slavery and admitted that they had been wrong to secede. He also pardoned (officially forgave) many men who had held important positions in the Confederate government or army.
Within a short time, however, many Northerners came to believe that Johnson's Reconstruction policies were too lenient (easy) on the South. They worried that the same men who had led the Southern states to secede from the Union would return to power. In December 1865, for example, the people of Georgia elected former Confederate vice president Andrew Stephens to represent them in the U.S. Congress. Other Southern states elected former Confederate politicians and military leaders to public office as well.
As state legislatures re-formed across the South, it became clear that the former Confederate states had no intention of giving black people equal rights as citizens. Instead, most Southern states passed laws known as "Black Codes" to regulate the behavior of blacks and make sure that whites maintained control over them. The state of Georgia not only instituted Black Codes but also rejected the Fourteenth Amendment, which made black people citizens of the United States and granted them civil rights.
In response to such actions by the Southern states, the U.S. Congress decided to take over the process of Reconstruction from the president. Beginning in 1866, Congress enacted stricter Reconstruction policies and sent in federal troops to enforce them. Political leaders in Georgia were determined to avoid complying with (following) these policies. They asked the U.S. Supreme Court to issue an injunction (a court order preventing a law from being enforced), but their case was dismissed.
Congress's Reconstruction policies required the Southern states to hold conventions to rewrite their constitutions. Georgia's constitutional convention met in Atlanta in December 1867. Of the 169 delegates (elected representatives) at the convention, 37 were black men. "The convention was interested in suffrage [voting rights], qualifications for office-holding, relief [aid to the poor], and a liberal Constitution," according to W. E. B. DuBois in Black Reconstruction. "In these matters, Negroes took active part in the discussions, and used their political privilege intelligently, and with caution." The delegates created a new state constitution that prohibited slavery and granted all adult males—black and white—the right to vote. However, it did not specifically say that all legal voters would be eligible to hold public office.
Once Georgia and the other Southern states had developed new constitutions, they were allowed to elect state governments and rejoin the Union. A majority of Georgia voters approved the new state constitution in April 1868. They also elected new representatives to the state and federal governments. Many black men jumped at the chance to vote and have a say in their government. As a result, the new Georgia State Senate included three black members, while the State House of Representatives included twenty-nine black members.
The U.S. Congress welcomed Georgia back into the Union on July 21, 1868, shortly after the state ratified (approved) the Fourteenth Amendment. Then Congress withdrew the federal troops that had been sent to enforce their Reconstruction policies. But as soon as the federal troops left Georgia, the white majority in the state legislature began trying to expel (kick out) the black members because of their race. "Immediately upon the readmission of their states the Conservatives [people who want to maintain traditional, established views or conditions] . . . began their running attack on the new administrations," John Hope Franklin wrote in Reconstruction after the Civil War. "Overthrow would come soon, they felt, if they worked hard enough at it."
In the Georgia State Senate, white members of the Democratic Party began targeting black members of the Republican Party. They accused the three black senators of "gross insults" and other minor offenses. But even though the charges were ridiculous, the Democrats held a majority in the senate and had enough votes to expel the black members. In September 1868, the white members of the Georgia State House of Representatives passed a resolution (a formal expression of their opinion) stating that black men were not eligible to hold public office. They argued that the state constitution allowed blacks to vote, but did not allow them to hold office. Based upon this resolution, twenty-five of the twenty-nine black state representatives lost their seats in the House. They were replaced by white Democrats. The other four black members remained in office because they had such light skin that it was impossible to prove their race.
Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915) was one of the black men expelled from the Georgia legislature. He was an educated man and a respected minister, but his status as a leader in the black community made him one of the primary targets of racist white Democrats. Turner refused to accept the ruling of his colleagues. On September 3, 1868, he made a passionate speech before the Georgia House of Representatives defending his right to hold office. The legislature refused to print the text of his speech in its minutes (the official written record of a meeting), so Turner published it himself and distributed it among the people of Georgia.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from Henry McNeal Turner's speech before the Georgia State Legislature:
- • Turner argues that he has a right to hold office in the new state government because that government was set up by blacks. Black delegates played an active role in the convention that rewrote Georgia's constitution. In addition, black voters selected him and the other black members of the legislature to be their representatives. He claims that black politicians are more capable of representing the will of the black people of Georgia than white politicians could be.
- • One of the most difficult issues following the end of the Civil War involved helping former slaves build new, independent lives for themselves. To many former slaves, true freedom meant owning land of their own. This way they could grow crops to feed their families and would no longer be dependent on plantation owners. Some people in the North wanted the U.S. government to confiscate (take away) land belonging to Southerners who had supported the Confederacy and give it to former slaves and poor whites. But other people did not want to give the government the right to take away citizens' property. President Johnson dashed the hopes of many former slaves to own land when he issued pardons to numerous former Confederates. People who received a pardon got back their rights and their property. In the end, the U.S. government failed to provide land to most former slaves. Turner refers to this situation in his speech. "You have our land and your own too," he tells the white legislators. "We [black people], who number hundreds of thousands in Georgia, including our wives and families, [have] not a foot of land to call our own."
- • At one point in his speech, Turner remarks that he has tried so hard to get along with white politicians that "many among my own party have classed me as a Democrat." In fact, Turner and most black people in the United States felt strong ties to the Republican political party during Reconstruction. They associated the Republican Party with President Abraham Lincoln, the end of slavery in the United States, and an increase in black civil rights and political power. Black voters tended to support Republican candidates for the next sixty years. But this situation began to change during the Great Depression of the 1930s. At that time, Democratic president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) established programs to provide jobs and other forms of assistance to black families. Then, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908–1973) and the Democratic Congress passed sweeping new laws that protected and expanded the civil rights of black Americans. By the 1990s, most black voters tended to support Democratic candidates.
Excerpt from "I Claim the Rights of a Man," Henry McNeal Turner's speech before the Georgia State Legislature:
Mr. Speaker: Before proceeding to argue this question upon its intrinsic merits, I wish the members of this House to understand the position that I take. I hold that I am a member of this body. Therefore, sir, I shall neither fawn nor cringe before any party, nor stoop to beg them for my rights. Some of my colored fellow members, in the course of their remarks, took occasion to appeal to the sympathies of members on the opposite side, and to eulogize their character for magnanimity. It reminds me very much, sir, of slaves begging under the lash. I am here to demand my rights and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood. There is an old aphorism which says, "fight the devil with fire," and if I should observe the rule in this instance, I wish gentlemen to understand that it is but fighting them with their own weapon.
The scene presented in this House, today, is one unparalleled in the history of the world. From this day, back to the day when God breathed the breath of life into Adam, no analogy for it can be found. Never, in the history of the world, has a man been arraigned before a body clothed with legislative, judicial or executive functions, charged with the offense of being a darker hue than his fellow men. I know that questions have been before the courts of this country, and of other countries, involving topics not altogether dissimilar to that which is being discussed here today. But, sir, never in the history of the great nations of this world—never before—has a man been arraigned, charged with an offense committed by the God of Heaven Himself. Cases may be found where men have been deprived of their rights for crimes and misdemeanors; but it has remained for the state of Georgia, in the very heart of the nineteenth century, to call a man before the bar, and there charge him with an act for which he is no more responsible than for the head which he carries upon his shoulders. The Anglo-Saxon race, sir, is a most surprising one. No man has ever been more deceived in that race than I have been for the last three weeks. I was not aware that there was in the character of that race so much cowardice or so much pusillanimity. The treachery which has been exhibited in it by gentlemen belonging tothat race has shaken my confidence in it more than anything that has come under my observation from the day of my birth. . . .
Whose legislature is this? Is it a white man's legislature, or is it a black man's legislature? Who voted for a constitutional convention, in obedience to the mandate of the Congress of the United States? Who first rallied around the standard of Reconstruction? Who set the ball of loyalty rolling in the state of Georgia? And whose voice was heard on the hills and in the valleys of this state? It was the voice of the brawny-armed Negro, with the few humanitarian-hearted white men who came to our assistance. I claim the honor, sir, of having been the instrument of convincing hundreds—yea, thousands—of white men, that to reconstruct under the measures of the United States Congress was the safest and the best course for the interest of the state.
Let us look at some facts in connection with this matter. Did half the white men of Georgia vote for this legislature? Did not the great bulk of them fight, with all their strength, the Constitution under which we are acting? And did they not fight against the organization of this legislature? And further, sir, did they not vote against it? Yes, sir! And there are persons in this legislature today who are ready to spit their poison in my face, while they themselves opposed, with all their power, the ratification of this Constitution. They question my right to sit in this body, to represent the people whose legal votes elected me. This objection, sir, is an unheard-of monopoly of power. No analogy can be found for it, except it be the case of a man who should go into my house, take possession of my wife and children, and then tell me to walk out. I stand very much in the position of a criminal before your bar, because I dare to be the exponent of the views of those who sent me here. Or, in other words, we are told that if black men want to speak, they must speak through white trumpets; if black men want their sentiments expressed, they must be adulterated and sent through white messengers, who will quibble and equivocate and evade as rapidly as the pendulum of a clock. If this be not done, then the black men have committed an outrage, and their representatives must be denied the right to represent their constituents.
The great question, sir, is this: Am I a man? If I am such, I claim the rights of a man. Am I not a man because I happen to be of a darker hue than honorable gentlemen around me? Let me see whether I am or not. I want to convince the House today that I am entitled to my seat here. . . . Am I a man? Have I a soul to save, asyou have? Am I susceptible of eternal development, as you are? Can I learn all the arts and sciences that you can? Has it ever been demonstrated in the history of the world? Have black men ever exhibited bravery as white men have done? Have they ever been in the professions? Have they not as good articulative organs as you? . . . God saw fit to vary everything in nature. There are no two men alike—no two voices alike—no two trees alike. God has weaved and tissued variety and versatility throughout the boundless space of His creation. Because God saw fit to make some red, and some white, and some black, and some brown, are we to sit here in judgment upon what God has seen fit to do? As well might one play with the thunderbolts of heaven as with that creature that bears God's image—God's photograph. . . .
If I am not permitted to occupy a seat here, for the purpose of representing my constituents, I want to know how white men can be permitted to do so. How can a white man represent a colored constituency, if a colored man cannot do it? The great argument is: "Oh, we have inherited " this, that and the other. Now, I want gentlemen to come down to cool, common sense. Is the created greater than the Creator? Is man greater than God? It is very strange, if a white man can occupy on this floor a seat created by colored votes, and a black man cannot do it. Why, gentlemen, it is the most shortsighted reasoning in the world. . . .
It is said that Congress never gave us the right to hold office. I want to know, sir, if the Reconstruction measures did not base their action on the ground that no distinction should be made on account of race, color or previous condition? Was not that the grand fulcrum on which they rested? And did not every reconstructed state have to reconstruct on the idea that no discrimination, in any sense of the term, should be made? There is not a man here who will dare say No. If Congress has simply given me merely sufficient civil and political rights to make me a mere political slave for Democrats, or anybody else—giving them the opportunity of jumping on my back in order to leap into political power—I do not thank Congress for it. Never, so help me God, shall I be a political slave. I am not now speaking for those colored men who sit with me in this House, nor do I say that they endorse my sentiments, but assisting Mr. Lincoln to take me out of servile slavery did not intend to put me and my race into political slavery. If they did, let them take away my ballot —I do not want it, and shall not have it. I don't want to be a mere tool of that sort. I have been a slave long enough already.
I tell you what I would be willing to do: I am willing that the question should be submitted to Congress for an explanation as to what was meant in the passage of their Reconstruction measures, and of the Constitutional Amendment. Let the Democratic party in this House pass a resolution giving this subject that direction, and I shall be content. I dare you, gentlemen, to do it. Come up to the question openly, whether it meant that the Negro might hold office, or whether it meant that he should merely have the right to vote. If you are honest men, you will do it. If, however, you will not do that, I would make another proposition: Call together, again, the convention that framed the constitution under which we are acting; let them take a vote upon the subject, and I am willing to abide by their decision. . . .
These colored men, who are unable to express themselves with all the clearness and dignity and force of rhetorical eloquence, are laughed at in derision by the Democracy of the country. It reminds me very much of the man who looked at himself in a mirror and, imagining that he was addressing another person, exclaimed: "My God, how ugly you are!" These gentlemen do not consider for a moment the dreadful hardships which these people have endured, and especially those who in any way endeavored to acquire an education. For myself, sir, I was raised in the cotton field of South Carolina, and in order to prepare myself for usefulness, as well to myself as to my race, I determined to devote my spare hours to study. When the overseer retired at night to his comfortable couch, I sat and read and thought and studied, until I heard him blow his horn in the morning. He frequently told me, with an oath, that if he discovered me attempting to learn, that he would whip me to death, and I have no doubt he would have done so, if he had found an opportunity. I prayed to Almighty God to assist me, and He did, and I thank Him with my whole heart and soul. . . .
So far as I am personally concerned, no man in Georgia has been more conservative than I. "Anything to please the white folks" has been my motto; and so closely have I adhered to that course, that many among my own party have classed me as a Democrat. One of the leaders of the Republican party in Georgia has not been at all favorable to me for some time back, because he believed that I was too "conservative" for a Republican. I can assure you, however, Mr. Speaker, that I have had quite enough, and to spare, of such "conservatism". . . .
But, Mr. Speaker, I do not regard this movement as a thrust at me. It is a thrust at the Bible—a thrust at the God of the Universe, formaking a man and not finishing him; it is simply calling the Great Jehovah a fool. Why, sir, though we are not white, we have accomplished much. We have pioneered civilization here; we have built up your country; we have worked in your fields and garnered your harvests for two hundred and fifty years! And what do we ask in return? Do we ask you for compensation for the sweat our fathers bore for you—for the tears you have caused, and the hearts you have broken, and the lives you have curtailed, and the blood you have spilled? Do we ask retaliation? We ask it not. We are willing to let the dead past bury its dead; but we ask you, now for our rights. You have all the elements of superiority upon your side; you have our money and your own; you have our education and your own; and you have our land and your own too. We, who number hundreds of thousands in Georgia, including our wives and families, with not a foot of land to call our own—strangers in the land of our birth; without money, without education, without aid, without a roof to cover us while we live, nor sufficient clay to cover us when we die! It is extraordinary that a race such as yours, professing gallantry and chivalry and education and superiority, living in a land where ringing chimes call child and sire to the church of God—a land where Bibles are read and Gospel truths are spoken, and where courts of justice are presumed to exist; that with all these advantages on your side, you can make war upon the poor defenseless black man. You know we have no money, no railroads, no telegraphs, no advantages of any sort, and yet all manner of injustice is placed upon us. You know that the black people of this country acknowledge you as their superiors, by virtue of your education and advantages. . . .
You may expel us, gentlemen, but I firmly believe that you will some day repent it. . . . Every act that we commit is like a bounding ball. If you curse a man, that curse rebounds upon you; and when you bless a man, the blessing returns to you; and when you oppress a man, the oppression also will rebound. Where have you ever heard of four millions of freemen being governed by laws, and yet have no hand in their making? Search the records of the world, and you will find no example. "Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed." How dare you to make laws by which to try me and my wife and children, and deny me a voice in the making of these laws? . . . How can you say that you have a republican form of government, when you make such distinction and enact such proscriptive laws? . . .
We are a persecuted people. . . . Good men in all nations have been persecuted; but the persecutors have been handed down toposterity with shame and ignominy. If you pass this bill, you will never get Congress to pardon or enfranchise another rebel in your lives. You are going to fix an everlasting disfranchisement upon Mr. Toombs and the other leading men of Georgia. You may think you are doing yourselves honor by expelling us from this House, but when we go . . . we will light a torch of truth that will never be extinguished—the impression that will run through the country, as people picture in their mind's eye these poor black men, in all parts of this Southern country, pleading for their rights. When you expel us, you make us forever your political foes, and you will never find a black man to vote a Democratic ticket again; for, so help me God, I will go through all the length and breadth of the land, where a man of my race is to be found, and advise him to beware of the Democratic party. Justice is the great doctrine taught in the Bible. God's Eternal Justice is founded upon Truth, and the man who steps from Justice steps from Truth, and cannot make his principles to prevail . . . .
You may expel us, gentlemen, by your votes, today; but, while you do it, remember that there is a just God in Heaven, whose All-Seeing Eye beholds alike the acts of the oppressor and the oppressed, and who, despite the machinations of the wicked, never fails to vindicate the cause of Justice, and the sanctity of His own handiwork.
What happened next . . .
Shortly after Turner and the other black representatives were expelled from the Georgia legislature, the remaining Republican members asked the Georgia Supreme Court to decide whether blacks were eligible to hold public office under the constitution. The Supreme Court said that blacks were entitled to hold office. But the state legislature refused to accept the court's decision. In October 1868, Turner and several other black legislators protested to the U.S. Congress's Committee on Reconstruction. They claimed that the Georgia state legislature was illegal because it had not been formed under Congress's Reconstruction policies. The committee conducted an investigation and learned of widespread violations of black people's rights in Georgia.
In December 1868, the U.S. Congress refused to allow the men who had been elected to represent Georgia in the federal government to take their seats. Since Georgia had no representation in the U.S. government, the state was still not technically part of the Union. But this action did not convince the state legislature to readmit its black members. The last straw came in March 1869, when Georgia failed to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This amendment guaranteed black voting rights and prohibited the states from restricting them. When Georgia rejected the Fifteenth Amendment, the U.S. Congress sent federal troops into the state again. Congress declared that it would not readmit Georgia to the Union until the state ratified the amendment and allowed the black members to return to the state legislature.
General Alfred H. Terry (1827–1890) took over control of Georgia's state government. He expelled a number of white Democrats from the state legislature and allowed Turner and the other black representatives to return to office. This new Georgia legislature ratified the Fifteenth Amendment and formally recognized the right of black men to hold public office in the state. It also voted to pay the black legislators for the time they were not allowed to serve. On January 10, 1870, Georgia was readmitted to the Union for a second time.
Did you know . . .
- • The situation in the Georgia state legislature was only one example of continuing racism in the South after the Civil War ended. Anger over Congress's Reconstruction policies convinced many white Southerners to use any means necessary to reclaim control of their governments and society. Some people—known as "white supremacists" due to their belief that blacks were inferior—used violence and terrorism to intimidate blacks and any whites who helped them. One of the worst white supremacist groups was the Ku Klux Klan, which was formed in 1866. Members of the Klan and similar groups bombed or set fire to black schools and churches. They terrorized black officeholders, successful black farmers and businessmen, and white teachers who worked at black schools. They were rarely punished for these crimes because juries were afraid to convict them. As a result of their activities, many blacks were too intimidated to vote and political leadership in the South gradually returned to the hands of whites.
For Further Reading
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
Foner, Philip S., and Robert James Branham, eds. Lift Every Voice: African American Oratory, 1787–1900. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1998.
Henry McNeal Turner
Henry McNeal Turner was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1834, to free black parents. (Not all black people in the United States were slaves in the early 1800s. Some former slaves were set free when their white owners died or no longer needed their services. Other former slaves saved money and purchased their freedom from their owners. When free blacks had children, the children were also free.) Even though Turner was free from birth, he still spent some time working alongside slaves on a cotton-growing plantation as a boy.
In 1855, Turner moved to Macon, Georgia. He joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and became a preacher. His sermons attracted the attention of white people in Georgia. Many white people resented blacks who knew how to read and write, because they worried that educated blacks would encourage slaves to rebel against their masters. As a result, fearful whites pressured Turner to leave Georgia. He moved north to Washington, D.C., where he became pastor of Israel Bethel Church. Over the next few years, he emerged as a leader of the black community and a fighter for racial justice.
In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Turner to be chaplain for the first black troops who fought for the United States in the Civil War. When the war ended in 1865, Turner took a job in the Freedmen's Bureau, a federal government agency organized to help former slaves make the transition to freedom. He traveled around Georgia speaking to freed slaves about education and job opportunities. By 1867, when the U.S. Congress took control of Reconstruction, Turner was a prominent figure in Georgia politics.
Turner took part in the convention to rewrite the Georgia State Constitution in 1867. He stressed the importance of compromising with whites in order to make lasting changes to Georgia society. The following year, he was elected to serve in the Georgia House of Representatives. But in September 1868, the conservative white members of the Congress voted to expel all of the black representatives. Turner led the protests against this decision and even went to Washington to make a formal complaint to the U.S. Congress. He and the other black representatives finally regained their seats in 1870.
Turner's experiences in Georgia during Reconstruction convinced him that Southern whites would never allow blacks to be equal members of society. He then began supporting the idea that black Americans should migrate to Africa and form their own country. Turner was ordained a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880. He died in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 1915.
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"Henry McNeal Turner." American Civil War Reference Library. . Retrieved April 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/energy-government-and-defense-magazines/henry-mcneal-turner