Turner, Henry McNeal

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Turner, Henry McNeal 1834–1915

Henry McNeal Turner was a major late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American religious leader. In a long and varied career, he was a Civil War soldier, recruiter, and chaplain; a Freedmen’s Bureau official; a spellbinding orator; a political organizer; an editor; and a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He also became one of the most outspoken advocates of reparations-funded African-American emigration to the African continent as a solution to the problem of racial justice in the United States.

Henry McNeal Turner was born on February 1, 1834, in antebellum South Carolina to Sarah Greer and Hardy Turner. Because both of his parents were born free, Turner was never enslaved. As a teenager he worked as a messenger and janitor in an Abbeville, South Carolina, law office. His white employers illegally and secretly taught him to read and write when they realized that his uncanny ability to recall a large amount of information perfectly could be useful to them. He thus became a secret legal courier. Known to outsiders only as a janitor, he was in reality conveying memorized documents for the firm.

Turner was permitted to sit in the rear of a white Methodist church on Sundays, but in 1858, at the age of twenty-four, Turner felt “called” to preach to black Methodists in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. He became a protégé of Bishop Daniel Payne, a highly educated black churchman. Payne’s colleagues introduced Turner to theology and the Hebrew, Latin, and Greek languages, which were then associated with advanced Bible study.

Nowhere in the slave-holding South did Turner’s photographic memory and extraordinary education shield him from the daily racism faced by all blacks. Embittered by the racial situation prior to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Turner had become convinced that America would never do full justice to its African-derived population. However, his vigorous recruiting of free blacks for the Union earned him a commissioned army chaplaincy, a first for a person of color. When the war ended Turner joined the Freedmen’s Bureau as an organizer, but quit his post because of the appalling racism of the bureau’s field leadership. He quickly formed scores of Equal Rights Leagues, building up a political base that elected him to the Georgia state legislature in 1868, along with twenty-two other blacks. However, the white Democratic Party majority interpreted the Fifteenth Amendment as giving blacks only the right to vote and not to hold office, and they removed Turner and his fellow African Americans from their seats the following year. In Turner’s last speech in office he asserted full equality in public and private life for blacks, stating “I claim the honor of having been the instrument of convincing hundreds—yea thousands—of white men that to reconstruct [Georgia] under the measures of the United States Congress was the safest and best course for the interest state.” One of these measures, of course, was the Fourteenth Amendment, which made blacks citizens and guaranteed equal protection of the laws. The expulsion of Turner and his colleagues did accelerate the adoption of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits state action in denying anyone the right to vote on account of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Because of his rather bold views on racial inequality, Turner received death threats from groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which at the time was headed by Georgia’s governor.

Through his remaining Republican Party connections, Turner became the postmaster in Macon, Georgia, in 1869, but resigned under the cloud of politically inspired allegations of sexual improprieties. He then received an appointment as Collector of Customs in Savannah. His religious activities, meanwhile, elevated him to he office of bishop in the AME Church in 1880. He ordained a woman as a deacon in 1885 (a first), and that same year he wrote The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity, which contains some of his progressive views of religion and race.

In 1883 Turner became one of the first black leaders to raise the issue of enslavement reparations. He argued that America’s blacks should collectively ask the government for $100 million to facilitate their relocation to the African continent. In The Civil Rights Cases(1883), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which protected individuals from discrimination and violence based on race, applied only to state action and not to acts of private individuals, such as Ku Klux Klan members. This decision reinforced Turner’s belief that emigration was the only chance blacks had to live free of white racism.

Between 1891 and 1898, Turner visited Africa no fewer than four times, beginning with an organizing conference promoting Methodism in Sierra Leone. He saw Africa as a land of economic opportunity for black émigrés from a nation slowly eroding their citizenship rights. In 1892 he launched Voice of Missions, a monthly newspaper that promoted black migration. He assured his 4,000 readers that “I will keep you informed about the improvements being made in Africa, such as building railroads. ... I will tell you about mines of silver, gold and diamonds that have been ... and are being discovered and what the nations of the earth doing in parceling out the domain of the great continent regardless of the right or wrong involved in the case” (Redkey 1969, pp. 177–178). He also warned of the increased European presence in Africa, saying “it means the capture of the only spot on the globe the black man can ever hope to be in power and demonstrate the ability of self-government” (Redkey 1969, p. 180).

In addition to Voice of Missions, Turner was the editor of the AME Christian Recorder, which also promoted the idea of emigration. In 1894 Turner helped to organize the International Migration Society, which raised sufficient funds to charter two vessels to carry blacks to Africa. The Horsa departed for Liberia on March 19, 1895, and the Laurada left on March 2, 1896. The ships carried a total of 500 individuals. Turner then began promoting his denomination among blacks in Cuba and Central and South America, hoping that a common Protestant activist regional movement would promote ideas of pan-African independence and freedom in that part of the black diaspora. His advocacy of African Americans migrating to Africa anticipated Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which promoted a Back-to-Africa movement in the 1920s. Always in search of a better place to live, Turner died on May 8, 1915, while traveling in Toronto, Canada.

SEE ALSO Black Reconstruction.


Hood, James W. 1895. One Hundred Years of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. New York: A.M.E. Zion Book Concern.

Jackson, John G. 1970. Introduction to African Civilizations. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press.

McPherson, James M. 1964. The Struggle for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mitchell, Michele. 2004. Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Redkey, Edwin S. 1969. Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890–1910. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wilmore, Gayraud. 1986. Black Religion and Black Radicalism, 2nd ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Morris G. Henderson

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