The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition
I have just returned from the Association of the Society of African American Life and History (ASALH) where I had the opportunity to present work on Bishop Henry McNeal Turner as part of my on going effort to reclaim the prophet voice of Turner. After presenting my paper, “Cry in the Wilderness: (Re) Claiming the Prophetic Voice of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a person shared her “testimony” of attending Henry McNeal Turner High School in Atlanta, but not knowing who Bishop Turner was. She knew that he was a “black man,” but as she remembered, no one talked about who he was or why people deemed it was important enough to name a school after him. Even upon graduation in 1966 from the school, in which her class presented a bust of Bishop Turner to the school, she and her classmates still did not know who the Bishop was.
As she continued her story, she only discovered who the Bishop was when in Washington DC and wearing a Turner High class reunion shirt, she so happened to walk into a black owned bookstore. Upon entering the store, the owner greeted her by saying, “So you are from Atlanta.” Puzzled, the women asked, “how did he know that?” and he responded, “your shirt, you went to Turner High and the only Turner High school I know is in Atlanta. Yeah, Bishop Turner was a bad man.” The woman looked startled and asked, “So, do you know who this man was?” The owner responded, “of course I do.” The women said that he then begin to offer her a history of the Bishop and to tell her why he was so important.
After “discovering” who Bishop Turner was, the woman continued to share her frustration in trying to find material on him. She looked everywhere for information on Turner but only finding “snippets” of information here and there. One of the reasons she attended our session was because she wanted to hear more about the elusive Bishop that supposedly was so important during his time, yet, she could find only snippets of information. In addition, she also shared with us that she is a member of the AME Church and even at her church; she did not hear much on Bishop Turner.
When she finished, I shared with her and the rest of the audience, (who by the way, was glad that she mentioned not knowing Turner because several others did not either), that this story is not surprising. Since I started to work on Turner, I have heard this story before. For a person whose public career lasted over sixty years; one that took him from working along side enslaved people to Senior Bishop of the AME Church, one whose literary archive is massive, one would have thought much more would have been done on Turner. Therefore, her question to me was a simple one—“why haven’t we heard more of Bishop Turner?”
I believe the answer to that question is three fold. First, while Turner’s literary archive is massive, it has also been scattered. In short, outside of the small collection at the Moorland-Spingarn Library in Washington DC, there is no one place that has a Turner collection or a place that has the “Turner Papers.” I attempt to address this problem by collecting and publishing the writings of Turner titled, The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner (Mellen Press). I am thankful for Mellen because they were the only publisher interested in publishing everything I found on Turner—a collection of text, as is, and without commentary, so that others who have an interest in Turner could finally read his words. I have completed two volumes already, “An African American Pastor Before and During the American Civil War, Vol. 1 (2010) and the “Chaplain Letters, Vol. 2 (2012). Vol. 3, titled An African American Pastor During Reconstruction is due in 2013.
The second reason I tie to the first—there has not been much in the way of publication about Turner. In short, history just has not been kind to Turner. Unlike his more famous contemporaries, Frederick Douglass, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Ida B. Wells, (who ASALH remembered this year with a plenary), Booker T. Washington and others, works on Turner is scant. So scant in fact, that in our session at ASALH, I rattled off from memory the previous scholarship on Turner.
There also however, may be another reason for the lack of Turner scholarship. As I argued in the “Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American Prophetic Tradition,” near the end of his life, Turner was what I call, a “pessimistic prophet.” While Turner advocated for emigration, he also knew that African Americans were not disposed to go—the ones who could afford it did not want to and the ones who would have gone could not afford to go. Therefore, Turner quickly became the “prophet” to poor and marginalized African Americans and his prophetic venom spewed on everyone—including “middle-class” African Americans who resided in what he called the “safety” of the North. In short, with his prophetic denunciations against America, the church, and African Americans, many people simply became tired of Turner and his chronicling of the abuses of African Americans; especially in the face of African American rhetoric that proclaimed that African Americans were moving forward and doing well just a generation out of slavery.
When Turner died in 1915, the last twenty years of Turner life had been one were he adopted a pessimistic prophetic persona—and quite frankly, no one wanted to hear Turner or remember him as someone to admire. For example, while other African Americans tried to find some hope in the Plessy decision, Turner declared in an editorial, “Sackcloth and Ashes for the Negro.” While other African Americans supported the country in its imperialism campaigns at the end of the nineteenth century, Turner denounced it and said that if any African Americans fight in these wars “they ought to be hung.” While African Americans were still beholden to the Republican Party, took broke ranks in 1900 and supported the Democrat nominee William Jennings Bryan. While other African Americans celebrated the country and the progress African Americans made, Turner constantly and consistently reminded them about the lynchings and mob violence that were still taking place all over the country, called the American flag a dirty and contemptible rag and damned the country to hell (yeah, before Jeremiah Wright).
As I will argue in the follow up book to “Forgotten Prophet” tentatively titled, “Bootlicks, Spittoon Lickers, Scullions, and Fool Negroes: The Pessimistic Prophecy of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner,” Turner's positions and proclamations did not fit the integrationist model that surfaced during this time. Therefore, African Americans and even the AME Church, who Turner embarrassed continually, decided to marginalize his work, writings, and record. However, this should no longer be the case and I invite others to join me in this reclamation project.