Henry McNeal Turner (February 1, 1833–1915) was a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
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 taught himself to read and write. He received his preacher's license in 1853. He traveled through the south for a few years as an evangelist and married in 1856. He later had 14 children. Eventually 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). 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 travelled to Africa and was struck by the differences in the attitude of Africans who had never known the degradation of slavery.
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. 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 honour. 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. In 1890 they purchased land for $190.00 and built a small 1,000-square-foot (93 m2) church which was built in the style of the brick churches which existed in Oakville in that time. 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."
When, in 1883, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, forbidding discrimination in hotels, trains, and other public places, was unconstitutional, Turner was incensed:
- "The world has never witnessed such barbarous laws entailed upon a free people as have grown out of the decision of the United States Supreme Court, issued October 15, 1883. For that decision alone authorized and now sustains all the unjust discriminations, proscriptions and robberies perpetrated by public carriers upon millions of the nation's most loyal defenders. It fathers all the 'Jim-Crow cars' into which colored people are huddled and compelled to pay as much as the whites, who are given the finest accommodations. It has made the ballot of the black man a parody, his citizenship a nullity and his freedom a burlesque. It has engendered the bitterest feeling between the whites and blacks, and resulted in the deaths of thousands, who would have been living and enjoying life today."
Bishop Turner left a widespread legacy which continues to grow. Turner Theological Seminary, a constituent seminary of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, was named in his honor.
In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Henry McNeal Turner on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- African Methodist Episcopal Church
- List of African Methodist Episcopal Churches
- Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York. Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.
- Henry McNeal Turner at Find a Grave Retrieved on 2009-04-23
- New Georgia Encyclopedia: Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915)
- The Lives of U.S. Colored Troops