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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 372

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This is the grave of Henry McNeal Turner.

Born in 1834 in South Carolina to free blacks, Turner had ambition from a young age. Teaching black people, slave or free, was illegal in that state. Turner was apprenticed to a cotton planter, making his condition not all that much above a slave. But he ran away to the town of Abbeville, where his intelligence impressed sympathetic whites and thus he was taught to read and then pursued an education. He witnessed a Methodist revival meeting in around 1848 and decided to become a minister. He received his minister’s license in 1853 and traveled the South, exhorting the gospel to black communities.

Turner greatly feared that he and his family could be kidnapped into slavery, which was increasingly common after the Fugitive Slave Act. He had married the daughter of the small free black elite in South Carolina and they were having children. In fact, she birthed 14 children, although only 4 lived to adulthood. So in 1858, he moved with them to St. Louis to provide a measure of protection. That city had a large free black community, even if it was a slave state, and they were safer there than rural South Carolina. In St. Louis, Turner received more education, becoming an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and studying divinity, Hebrew, and classics at Trinity College. He became a pastor in Baltimore and then in 1862 at the largest AME church in Washington. He was already at the peak of the black community there and met many leading politicians, especially sympathetic Republicans.

Turner was determined to fight for the freedom of his people. As I often say when I teach my students, of the 4 major groups of people in the nation in 1861, 3 of them knew what the Civil War was about: southern whites, southern blacks, and northern blacks all knew it was about slavery. Only northern whites were confused. Turner fought hard to make northern whites understand this. He organized one of the first black regiments and urged both northern blacks and freed slaves to join it or another regiment. He became the minister for the First United States Colored Troops and was its only black officer. He nearly died of smallpox soon after joining the military. His status in the black community grew through his work with black soldiers, preaching, tending to the dead, visiting the wounded. He was with his troops as they joined William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through North Carolina in the spring of 1865, witnessing the freeing of thousands of slaves.

At the end of the war, Turner was sent to Roanoke Island to help out with a settlement of freed slaves as they demanded land for themselves. He also was publishing widely, including in white newspapers. He frequently wrote battlefield journalism, gaining him a large readership in the North. He also wrote about creating the first all-black church for freedmen in the South, determined that black people would have their own churches, which was a major part what emancipation meant for the ex-slaves. He worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia after its creation. There, he entered politics. He was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1868 from a seat in Macon. With Andrew Johnson refusing to enforce Reconstruction, Georgia whites in the legislature refused to seat Turner or the only 26 black legislators elected under fair and free elections. Finally, Congress intervened and they were seated. During this battle, Turner gave this incredible speech, which is worth your time. In part, it reads:

Go on with your oppressions. Babylon fell. Where is Greece? Where is Nineveh? And where is Rome, the Mistress Empire of the world? Why is it that she stands, today, in broken fragments throughout Europe? Because oppression killed her. Every act that we commit is like a bounding ball. If you curse a man, that curse rebounds upon you; and when you bless a man, the blessing returns to you; and when you oppress a man, the oppression also will rebound. Where have you ever heard of four millions of freemen being governed by laws, and yet have no hand in their making? Search the records of the world, and you will find no example. “Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” How dare you to make laws by which to try me and my wife and children, and deny me a voice in the making of these laws? I know you can establish a monarchy, an autocracy, an oligarchy, or any other kind of ocracy that you please; and that you can declare whom you please to be sovereign; but tell me, sir, how you can clothe me with more power than another, where all are sovereigns alike? How can you say you have a republican form of government, when you make such distinction and enact such proscriptive laws?

Gentlemen talk a good deal about the Negroes “building no monuments.” I can tell the gentlemen one thing: that is, that we could have built monuments of fire while the war was in progress. We could have fired your woods, your barns and fences, and called you home. Did we do it? No, sir! And God grant that the Negro may never do it, or do anything else that would destroy the good opinion of his friends. No epithet is sufficiently opprobrious for us now. I saw, sir, that we have built a monument of docility, of obedience, of respect, and of self control, that will endure longer than the Pyramids of Egypt.

We are a persecuted people. Luther was persecuted; Galileo was persecuted; good men in all nations have been persecuted; but the persecutors have been handed down to posterity with shame and ignominy. If you pass this bill, you will never get Congress to pardon or enfranchise another rebel in your lives. You are going to fix an everlasting disfranchisement upon Mr. Toombs and the other leading men of Georgia. You may think you are doing yourselves honor by expelling us from this House; but when we go, we will do as Wickliffe and as Latimer did. We will light a torch of truth that will never be extinguished the impression that will run through the country, as people picture in their mind’s eye these poor black men, in all parts of this Southern country, pleading for their rights. When you expel us, you make us forever your political foes, and you will never find a black man to vote a Democratic ticket again; for, so help me God, I will go through all the length and breadth of the land, where a man of my race is to be found, and advise him to beware of the Democratic party. Justice is the great doctrine taught in the Bible. God’s Eternal justice is founded upon Truth, and the man who steps from justice steps from ‘Ruth, and cannot make his principles to prevail.

Like any powerful Republican, Turner got his share of the spoils too and was named as Macon’s postmaster, an important patronage position. But of course he lost that position when Democrats regained power. The last decades of Turner’s life were defined by defending the gains made at the end of slavery and fighting against the rise of Jim Crow. His prolific writing provided him a major voice to protest the horrors of the period. Disgusted and horrified, Turner began supporting back to Africa schemes, deciding that black people could never get a fair shake in white America. He founded the International Migration Society and ran newspapers to support it. He organized two ships in the mid-1890s to send about 500 people to Liberia. Typically, it was a disaster. As had happened with American Colonization Society schemes before the war, there were conflicts between the black people from America with local people, as the Americans had imbibed heavily in cultural and racial superiority beliefs themselves. Disease, a lack of economic opportunity, and the brutally hot weather all convinced people that this was a bad idea and many of the colonists, at least of those who survived, returned to the U.S. Turner still supported emigration in theory, but he stopped organizing the journeys.

In 1880, Turner was elected as the first bishop from the South in the AME church. There, he promoted equal rights for black women, naming the first woman as a deacon in the church. He massively spread the AME through the South, as it had initially been a church located mostly in the border states. He supported women’s suffrage, prohibition, and other reform movements of the period. He was chancellor for Morris Brown College in Atlanta for twelve years. He was also interesting in missionary activities to Africa, unfortunately reflecting the cultural superiority American blacks often felt toward Africans. He visited Africa several times and worked with British colonial officials to open the colonies to AME missionaries. He also raised money for people from South Africa to attend Wilberforce University in Ohio, one of the top black schools in the United States. Turner strongly rejected the White Jesus imagery that had become increasingly common during the late 19th century and instead argued that Jesus was black, which was a genuinely controversial thing to say at that time. He wrote in 1898:

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.

Turner died in 1915 on a trip to Ontario. He was 81 years old.

Henry McNeal Turner is buried in Southview Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia. For whatever reason that I don’t know now, the picture I took is of the more recent monument at the grave and I didn’t include the original monument, which you can view here if you care. As you can see, the image above is the slab next to it.

This post was supported by LGM reader contributions. For that, I am extremely grateful. People such as Turner is who many readers want to read about so I do what I can to make it happen. If you would like this series to cover more African-American leaders of the Gilded Age, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ida Wells is in Chicago while W.E.B. DuBois is in Accra. If you want to send me to Ghana, I guess I won’t object to a trip of my lifetime. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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