Friday, October 26, 2012

The Worth to Society of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner

Here is a short biographical sketch written by Robert L. Nelson circa 1936-37 for the WPA Federal Writers'; Project on African American Life in South Carolina.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

New Book On Henry McNeal Turner

Cole, Jean Lee. Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner. West Virginia University Press, 2012

In a series of columns published in the African American newspaper The Christian Recorder, the young, charismatic preacher Henry McNeal Turner described his experience of the Civil War, first from the perspective of a civilian observer in Washington, D.C., and later, as one of the Union army’s first black chaplains.

In the halls of Congress, Turner witnessed the debates surrounding emancipation and black enlistment. As army chaplain, Turner dodged “grape” and cannon, comforted the sick and wounded, and settled disputes between white southerners and their former slaves. He was dismayed by the destruction left by Sherman’s army in the Carolinas, but buoyed by the bravery displayed by black soldiers in battle. After the war ended, he helped establish churches and schools for the freedmen, who previously had been prohibited from attending either.

Throughout his columns, Turner evinces his firm belief in the absolute equality of blacks with whites, and insists on civil rights for all black citizens. In vivid, detailed prose, laced with a combination of trenchant commentary and self-deprecating humor, Turner established himself as more than an observer: he became a distinctive and authoritative voice for the black community, and a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal church. After Reconstruction failed, Turner became disillusioned with the American dream and became a vocal advocate of black emigration to Africa, prefiguring black nationalists such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. Here, however, we see Turner’s youthful exuberance and optimism, and his open-eyed wonder at the momentous changes taking place in American society.

Well-known in his day, Turner has been relegated to the fringes of African American history, in large part because neither his views nor the forms in which he expressed them were recognized by either the black or white elite. With an introduction by Jean Lee Cole and a foreword by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Freedom’s Witness: The Civil War Correspondence of Henry McNeal Turner restores this important figure to the historical and literary record.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner

by Andre E. Johnson, author of  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.

The Scholarship on Bishop Henry McNeal Turner

Scholarship on Turner is meager. Outside of brief articles or sketches printed in journals or edited volumes,[1] the first published work on Turner came two years after his death titled, “The Life and Times of Henry McNeal Turner” and written by friend and fellow AME minister Mungo Ponton. This glowing and uncritical “biography” purported to share the life story of Turner “upon the times in which he lived” (23). However, the “biography” was more apologetic in nature as Ponton not only defended the actions of Turner, but also had, as a goal, to protect and promote the AME Church. Ponton hoped that through his work, the story of Turner could “serve as an inspiration to lovers of manhood, home, freedom and life everywhere” (24). 

Despite the uncritical nature of the work and its apparent shortcomings, something that Ponton apologizes for early in the text (24), I believe that dismissing his work is a mistake. It is through Ponton’s work that we learn of Turner’s childhood experiences and get some glimpse of his family life—his call into ministry and some of his early travels. More important for the purposes of this dissertation, Ponton offers testimony from others to the oratorical prowess of Turner. He quotes many of Turner’s contemporaries who give us some impression of what Turner was like as a speaker.

After Ponton’s book, the next treatment of Turner came in 1938 with J. Minton Batten’s “Henry McNeal Turner, Negro BishopExtraordinary.” Drawing from Ponton, Batten offers a biographical sketch of Turner’s career as a pastor, politician, and bishop. However, unlike Ponton, Batten offers historical documentation in the way of speeches, and other writings that support his arguments.

It was not until 1964 that another published article on Turner appeared. Henry M. Turner: Georgia Negro Preacher-PoliticianDuring the Reconstruction Era” by E. Merton Coulter, was an account of Turner’s activities during the early part of Reconstruction. Drawn primarily from sources unfriendly and hostile to African Americans and their concerns, Coulter’s aim was to paint an unflattering picture of Turner’s political activities. As if to sum up his argument for this unflattering view, Coulter writes in the closing of his essay, “if he was the greatest man the Negro race ever produced, then that race had not reached the stage in civilization which has generally been accorded it” (406).[2]

In 1967, Edwin Redkey published “BishopTurner’s African Dream” that focused on Turner’s push for emigration to Africa. In his essay, Redkey, while highlighting Turner’s successes, also puts forth arguments that demonstrate why Turner’s emigration campaign ultimately failed. In addition, Redkey posits a reason for the dearth in Turner scholarship. Redkey argues that because of Turner’s “scathing attacks on American society and upon Negroes who disagreed with his solution to the race problem; few mourned the end of his uncomfortable prodding toward Negro achievement and his perpetual scheming to move Negroes to Africa” (272).

In 1969, Jane Herndon published “Henry McNeal Turner’s African Dream: A Re-Evaluation”. As the title would indicate, this was not a refutation or critique of Redkey’s earlier work. Herndon’s aim is to place Turner within the African American nationalist tradition and refute the charge that the “Negro has docilely accepted his position and that his sole ambition has been to amalgamate into white society” (327). By highlighting Turner’s emigration position and placing Turner within the nationalist tradition, Herndon offers a “re-evaluation” of Turner’s work and represents Turner as a forerunner to Garvey and Dubois and “more recent leaders of the contemporary Negro revolution” in the United States (336). 

The next publication, published in 1971, was “Respect Black: The Speeches and Writingsof Henry McNeal Turner” by Edwin Redkey. Offering a brief biographical sketch at the beginning, this book is the only volume of writings and speeches by Turner and is a valuable source for anyone interested in Turner’s rhetoric.[3]  

In 1973, Josephus R. Coan published “Henry McNeal Turner: A Fearless Prophet of Black Liberation”. Coan’s aim is clear from the outset: he attempts to place Turner within the Black Awareness movement current at the time of publication. Black Awareness Coan writes, “Is a determination to achieve complete liberation of Black Americans from all the forces and movements aimed at degrading and dehumanizing the race” (9). Coan divides his essay in two parts; first, he offers a chronological sketch of Turner’s life and second, he offers an overview of his theology and social ideas.

In 1980, Edwin Redkey published Turner’s Civil War recount of the assault on Fort Fisher in “Rock in the Cradle of Consternation”. In this article, Redkey republishes Turner’s letters to the Christian Recorder detailing the battle and describing the morale of black soldiers. The article is helpful in giving us insight into the mind of black soldiers during the Civil War.

After the 1980’s, there was some renewal of interest in the life and works of Turner. Three edited volumes contain essays about Turner. The first one, published in 1991, entitled “Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century,” contains an article by John Dittmer entitled “The Education of Henry McNeal Turner.” The essay offers a biographical sketch of Turner’s life and offers no new information. The second volume, published in 1999, titled “Black Conservatism: Essay in Intellectual and Political History,” contains an article by Stephen Angell, “Henry McNeal Turner—Conservative? Radical? Or Independent.”  In this essay, Angell argues that Turner does not fit “any single party label or any ideological label.” Therefore what Angell attempts to do is to offer an “accurate…portrayal of [Turner’s] political and ideological commitments throughout his career” (26).

Finally, the third book published in 2004 “Black Soldiers in Blue: African American Troops in the Civil War,” contains an essay by Edwin Redkey “Henry McNeal Turner: Black Chaplain in the Union Army.”  As the title indicates, Redkey focuses on Turner’s career as a chaplain in the Union Army which, Redkey argues, helped Turner “develop some of the ideas, attitudes, and skills that became manifest in his later career” (336).

In 1992, there was a publication of a full-length biography of Turner by Stephen Ward Angell titled “Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and African American Religion in theSouth.” Angell’s work focused primarily on Turner’s extensive church work during antebellum and Post-Bellum periods of American history. 

Also published are books that devote chapters to Turner,[4] articles and essays that feature Turner,[5] as well as master theses’ and dissertations that focus on Turner’s life and work.[6] However, outside of Coan and Pinn who are theologians, the works published on Turner have come primarily from historians or students of history. While these historians have done a wonderful job at unearthing primary sources of Turner’s publications, writings, and speeches, what is utterly surprising is that only two published articles focus on Turner’s rhetoric.

The first one published in 1982, was Melbourne Cummings’ “The Rhetoric of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner.”  Cummings offers a rhetorical biography of Turner that covers the major events in his life that gave rise to his fiery rhetoric. Cummings traced the life of Turner from his childhood “working in the cotton fields alongside slaves” to his failed emigration movement. While she notes Turner’s use of religious rhetoric and makes a connection to contemporary Black Nationalist rhetoric, her primary focus is on Turner’s call for emigration to Africa.

Cummings’ essay differs from her earlier treatment of Turner’s rhetoric in her dissertation entitled “The Rhetoric of Bishop HenryMcNeal Turner, Leading Advocate in the African Emigration Movement,1866-1907.” Focused on Turner’s calls for emigration, Cummings grounds her analysis in Leland Griffin’s social movement model. In addition to Griffin’s model, she also uses Arthur Smith’s (Molefi Asante) agitational strategies of vilification, objectification, mythication, and legitimation to examine Turner’s style. 

The other treatment of Turner’s rhetoric comes from an essay by Richard Leeman, “Speaking as Jeremiah: Henry McNeal Turner’s “IClaim the Rights of a Man” in 2006. It has the distinction of being the only scholarly treatment of a speech delivered by Turner. In the essay, Leeman offers a rhetorical analysis of Turner’s “On the Eligibility of Colored Members to Seats in the Georgia Legislature” (also known as “I Claim the Rights of a Man”) speech, calling it an example of the jeremiad.

Andre E. Johnson is the Dr. James L. Netters Professor of Rhetoric and Religion and African American Studies at Memphis Theological Seminary

[1] See “Bishop H. M. Turner’s Twenty-Fifth Anniversary”. A.M.E. Church Review 22 (July 1905), 1-11, Simmons, William J. Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, and Rising. Geo. M. Rewell and Co. Cleveland, 1887, Singleton, R.H. “Bishop Turner, His Birth, Rearing, and Education”. AME Church Review 22 (July 1903), 8-1, Ramsom, Reverdy C. “Bishop Henry McNeal Turner” A.M.E. Church Review. 32 (July 1915).

[2] Coulter was a member of the Dunning School; named after William Archibald Dunning a history professor at Columbia University. Teachers associated with this school of thought promoted a view of history that was unabashedly anti-black and viewed Reconstruction in the most negative terms.
             [3] Until my collection of Turner texts, The Literary Archive of Henry McNeal Turner: An African American pastor before and During the American Civil war, Vol.1 (2010) and the Chaplain Letters, Vol. 2 (2012). Mellen Press

[4] See Black Exodus: Black Nationalist and Back-to-Africa Movements, 1890-1910 especially chapters 2 and 8 by Edwin Redkey; Unafrican Americans: Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalists and the Civilizing Mission especially chapter 5 by Tunde Adeleke.

[5] See “Double Consciousness” in Nineteenth-Century Black Nationalism: Reflections on the Teachings of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner” by Anthony Pinn; Ain’t Gonna Lay My ‘Ligion Down: African American Religion in the South edited by Alonzo Johnson and Paul T. Jersild for Stephen Angell’s “Black Methodist Preachers in the South Carolina Upcountry, 1840-1866”; Returning Home: A Century of African-American Repatriation by Robert Johnson, Jr. especially chapter 12; “Henry McNeal Turner Verses the Tuskegee Machine: Black Leadership in the. Nineteenth Century” by Gregory Mixon; “A Black Minister Befriends the “Unquestioned Father of Civil Rights”: Henry McNeal Turner, Charles Sumner, and the African American Quest for Freedom” by Stephen Ward Angell

[6] See Henry McNeal Turner, Exponent of American “Negritude” by Jane Walker Herndon; The Life of Henry McNeal Turner, 1834 to 1870 by Elbert Martin; Black Nationalism and Theodicy: A Comparison of the Thought of Henry Highland Garnet, Alexander Crummell, and Henry McNeal Turner by James Arthur Holmes.