Turner, Thomas Wyatt
TURNER, THOMAS WYATT
Biologist, educator, pioneer leader of African American Catholics; b. March 16, 1877, Hughesville, Md.; d. April 21, 1978, Washington, D. C. In the preface to his unpublished autobiography, Thomas Wyatt Turner captured in simple language the meaning of a life which spanned more than a century: "For me, my color was my earliest handicap. Doors would be closed, opportunities lacking, barriers erected because I was black. The American dream would be a dream only—to become a train engineer, a wealthy farmer, a storekeeper or whatever. But if I just had a chance, I would exert every effort to push open the door, tear down the barriers, seek every opportunity to become a man with dignity, respected for my personal worth." In May 1976 The Catholic University of America recognized that personal worth in bestowing an honorary doctor of science degree on this remarkable Catholic educator. The award came 75 years after Turner had left the University as a graduate student because of insufficient funds and more than 40 years after he had received an ironic letter of refusal to his appeal for the admission of African American students to the institution.
Poverty and racism were battles which Turner waged most of his life. He was born in a sharecropper's cabin in Charles Co., Southern Maryland, fifth of the nine children of Eli and Linnie (Gross) Turner. Baptized as an infant, he once remarked that he had "remained baptized ever since." The phrase was fitting, for Turner discovered early in life that the color barrier existed in church as elsewhere. While sitting in the old slave gallery for
Sunday Mass as a child, young Thomas vowed he would change such immoral practices. He received his early education in the county schools and in the fields as a share-cropper, completing his studies at an Episcopalian school in Charlotte Hall, Maryland. As graduation neared, this young student known as "Lawyer" was offered a college scholarship on the condition that he become an Episcopalian. Accepting the advice of a friendly Quaker woman, Turner chose to "stick with" his church instead. Shortly thereafter, he set out for Howard University in Washington, D. C., penniless but ambitious. Working his way through school, Turner obtained his B.A. degree in 1901. He accepted a scholarship for graduate study in science at Catholic University, but soon ran out of funds. About that time Turner received a request from Booker T. Washington to teach at Tuskegee Institute, which the young man eagerly accepted.
In 1902 Turner returned to Maryland to join the faculty of the Baltimore High and Training School, among the first African American teachers to staff African American schools in the state. He joined the fledgling NAACP as the first secretary of its Baltimore branch in 1910. Three years later he moved to Howard University as a biologist in the School of Education. Continuing his civil rights activities, he organized the first city–wide membership drive for the Washington NAACP in 1915.
At the same time Turner directed his attention to the racist practices in his own church. With fellow African–American Catholics he organized the Committee against the Extension of Race Prejudice in the Church, which wrote to bishops letters of protest against discrimination in churches, schools, hospitals, orphanages, and seminaries. Racism in seminaries and convents was a primary concern to the committee. Finally, in 1924 the group adopted a constitution; established a permanent organization, Federated Colored Catholics; and elected Turner its first president.
Although Turner saw the organization as representative of the interests of African American Catholics in America, he welcomed the support of all groups, including white priests. One of the earliest such advocates was John LaFarge, SJ, editor of America magazine. Another was William Markoe, SJ of St. Louis, who became editor of the Federation's official journal. For a time the three men worked harmoniously to keep the cause of racial justice before the American hierarchy through annual Federation conventions, letters to bishops, and local efforts at change. When William Markoe sought to transform the organization into a more "interracial" group, however, Turner balked. As an older African American Catholic who remembered stories of the earlier Afro American Catholic Congress movement (1889–94) and its demise because of militancy, Turner feared a white domination which would reduce the Federation to mere discussion. The controversy between Turner and Markoe (with LaFarge largely silent) was waged, often bitterly, in private correspondence, meetings, and the press from 1931 to 1932.
Finally, the organization split into two factions, with Turner as president of a small eastern group of Federation members. This organization functioned until 1952, with Turner often at the helm. Throughout this period the Federation president combined his church activities with a strenuous career as a professional educator. Receiving his master's degree from Howard in 1905 and his Ph.D. in botany from Cornell University in 1921, Turner served as acting dean of the School of Education at Howard (1914–20) and went to Hampton Institute in Virginia as first chairman of the biology department in 1924. He retired from that institution in 1945 after a distinguished career. The author of numerous published articles, he was the first African American man to present a paper before the Virginia Academy of Science and to serve as a research cytologist for the U. S. Department of Agriculture. He was honored by Hampton Institute in 1978 when its new natural sciences building was named Turner Hall. His pioneer work for equal rights in the church is memorialized in the Dr. Thomas Wyatt Turner Award, given yearly to a deserving individual by the Secretariat of the National Office of Black Catholics in Washington, D. C. Besides his unpublished autobiography Turner also left in manuscript a history of African American Catholicism.
Bibliography: m. w. nickels, "The Federated Colored Catholics: A Study in the Variant Perspectives on Racial Justice as Represented by John LaFarge, William Markoe, and Thomas Turner" (Ph.D. dissertation, Catholic University, 1975); "Journey of a Black Catholic," America 135 (Jul. 1976) 6–8. m. w. nickels et al., "NOBC Pioneer Dies in 102nd Year," Impact! 8 (Apr.–May 1978) 2–3.
[m. w. nickels]