Bishop Henry McNeal Turner

Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (1834-1915) was a contemporary of Martin Delany.  He was born free near Abbeville, South Carolina. He was converted to Christianity at the age of 20 and was licensed as a traveling evangelist for the Methodist Episcopal Church.  Turner preached to both Black and white audiences throughout the South until 1858 when he joined the AME.  In 1862, he moved to a church in Washington D.C., where congressmen attended to hear his fiery sermons.  Along with Martin Delany and Frederick Douglass, he advocated Black participation in the Civil War. Later, he became the first Black chaplain to be commissioned in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.

By the end of the war, Turner was assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia, but later resigned to recruit African Americans for his Church. He later attempted to organize them for the Republican Party, which was trying to gain a foothold in the South. Turner participated in the Georgia Constitutional Convention of 1868, and later was elected to the legislature.  However, whites refused to seat the Black legislator, and Turner was appointed postmaster at Macon, Georgia, and then customs inspector at Savannah.  In 1876, he was elected manager of the AME Book Concern, and in 1880 he was elected Bishop of the AME.

During the 1870s Bishop Turner became disillusioned with America due to his experiences in Reconstruction politics. He wrongly believed that the Civil War would remove all the obstacles for Black uplifting and would open the door for Blacks’ participating in the political, economic, social and racial Reconstruction of America. He now became more nationalistic, and believed that only Blacks themselves could contribute to their own liberation and freedom, and that none of these goals could be guaranteed because the white man would never let the Black man become a part of the system because of institutional racism. Bishop Turner now believed that a homeland needed to be created for African Americans. 

In 1871, he argued for Black migration out of the South and first suggested Haiti as a possible place for Black immigration.  Three years later, he proposed that the federal government reserve New Mexico Territory for African American settlement. Turner then turned toward Africa as a potential homeland for African Americans.   He urged talented young Blacks to establish a nation in Africa to give pride and encouragement to Blacks of African descent. To accomplish this goal, he argued, the federal government should pay reparation to people of African descent for slavery.

In order to accomplish his immigration plan, Bishop Henry McNeal Turner formed an alliance with white segregationist organizations such as, the Ku Klux Klan. For him, this move was not contradictory with his ideology because both groups wanted the same thing—the removal of Blacks from the United States.  In 1878, Turner became the vice president of the white-dominated American Colonization Society, whose purpose was to provide free passage to any African American who would leave the United States. Turner believed that immigration to Africa was the best opportunity for Blacks to prosper and advance.

Bishop Henry McNeil Turner also fought for social justice.  In 1883, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Civil Rights Act of 1875, forbidding discrimination in hotels, trains and other public place, 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 … authorized and now sustains all the unjust discrimination, proscription 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.

In Atlanta, Bishop Turner published the Southern Recorder (1888), the Voice of Missions (1892), and the Voice of the People (1901).  He also published a catechism, a hymnal and The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity (1885).  He was a supporter of self-protection and in the March, 1897 issue of Voice of Missions, advocated African Americans to acquire firearms and “to keep them loaded and prepared for immediate use” against white lynch mobs.

During the 1890s, Turner made four trips to Africa, visiting Liberia, Sierra Leone, British South Africa, and the Transvaal, to publicize his “Back-to-Africa” immigration plan. In 1893, he summoned a national convention of Black leaders to protest lynching and political attacks on Blacks and to find support for his immigration movement. As a theologian, Bishop Turner was the first to introduce the concept of a Black theology of liberation.  He argued that God is a Black man made in the image of the Creator, and that Black people needed to stop worshiping a God who is white-skinned, blue-eyed, compressed-lipped, and who is in the image of a 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 Negro believe that he resembles God.” He argued that the oppressed are God’s chosen ones, and that no one is more oppressed that the Black man, who was created in God’s image. He went on to state that even the African knows that their God looks like them. He urged Blacks to reject everything the white churches said about Black inferiority and “Love thyself with all thy heart and with thy entire mind.”  Turner underscored the role of the Black church in instilling racial pride and Black consciousness among African Americans and in uplifting the Black masses through a theology of their freedom and liberation from the white man’s world.

Like other Black nationalistic movements, it was elitist of Turner to want to attract well-to-do African Americans who had the necessary resources to build a Black State from where Diasporic streams could emanate.  The reality of his movement was that only poor farmers, who had no stake in the American dream, would become the real disciples for immigration to Africa.  Clearly, the sum total of his early work was a worldwide strategy for African and African American manhood to make a direct connection with one’s African ancestors and redeem their homeland for Africans and her descendants.