All That’s Black: Henry McNeal Turner

Henry McNeal Turner, minister, politician, bishop:

Photo Credit: Howard University

“I used to love what I thought was the grand old flag, and sing with ecstasy about the Stars and Stripes, but to the Negro in this country the American flag is a dirty and contemptible rag.”

Born free in South Carolina to Sarah Greer and Hardy Turner, although his mother and maternal grandmother raised Henry. When Turner was apprenticed to work in cotton fields beside slaves, he ran away and found a job as a custodian for a law firm.

At the age of 14, Turner happened upon a Methodist revival and, inspired, decided to become a pastor and received his preacher’s license at the age of 19 from the Methodist Church South. In 1858, Turner moved with his family to Missouri, although he was afraid that his free family could be kidnapped and sold into slavery. During the American Civil War, Turner organized one of the first regiments of black troops (Company B of the First United States Colored Troops) and was appointed as its chaplain.

Turner urged both free-born blacks and “contrabands” to enlist. Turner regularly preached to the men while they trained and reminded them that the “destiny of their race depended on their loyalty and courage.” It was not uncommon for the regiment to march to Turner’s church to hear his patriotic speeches and a minister, politician, and the first Southern bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

In his role as chaplain, Turner developed some of the ideas, attitudes, and skills that became manifest in his later career, in which he became a Reconstruction politician, an influential churchman, and a national race leader. While serving in the army, Turner refined his thinking about the African race and its future. Two specific activities propelled him to full attention among both blacks and whites in both North and South.

First, his newspaper letters from the battlefield attracted many readers and admirers in the North, and they launched him on a lifetime of journalism. Second, in the first months after the war ended, he used his position as an army chaplain to lead emancipated freedmen into his all-black church; this represented a significant culture shift for the ex-slaves and left a permanent mark on the South.

Turner was the first of the 14 black chaplains to be appointed during the war. He was known as a fiery orator. He notably preached that God was black, scandalizing some but appealing to his colleagues at the first Black Baptist Convention. He died while visiting Windsor, Ontario, in 1915 and is buried in ATL.

By Aprille’ Burke & Emily Burke

Edited By Keshav Kant

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