Black History Month, Henry M. Turner
Henry M. Turner, Preacher & Politician
Turner (1833-1915) was born a free black in Newberry Courthouse, South Carolina, and raised by his teenage mother and grandmother. As his father was not known, he was sent to a white Quaker family who taught him to read and write. Licensed to preach in 1853, he travelled the South as an evangelist, begat 14 known children and became a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1880.
During the War Between the States, Turner committed treason against his native State by adhering to its enemies, encouraging slaves to flee to Northern lines, and was appointed chaplain to black troops by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. He later worked in the Freedman’s Bureau in Georgia as an appointee of Andrew Johnson and was active in the Union League which fomented racial hatred in recently freed slaves against their white neighbors. He was instrumental in founding the Republican party in postwar Georgia by herding illiterate former slaves to the polls, and in 1868 used their votes to be elected Georgia legislator. A political opportunist with the Northern party behind him, Turner also held the positions of Postmaster of Macon and Customs Agent in Savannah, both patronage payoffs for delivering the freedman vote to the Republicans.
The Macon (Georgia) American Union commented on Turner’s political reputation on December 29, 1870:
"Most Negro officeholders were more to be pitied than blamed, but a few blatant, dishonest, insolent megalomaniacs discredited all. A carpetbagger characterized Henry M. Turner, preacher, politician and presided at many Negro conventions, as a “licentious robber and counterfeiter, a vulgar blackguard, a sacreligious profaner of God’s name, and a most consummate hypocrite. Yet the Negroes elected him to the Georgia legislature—“if he had received his deserts, he would have gone to the penitentiary; he was “a thief and a scoundrel, and yet they voted for him.”
The same newspaper said of him on June 15, 1871:
“If the colored people have not the elements of morality among them sufficiently to cry down on such shameless characters, they should not expect to command the respect of decent people anywhere.”
Reverend Turner was tainted by charges of sexual promiscuity, had publicly proclaimed that God has black skin, and was a vocal proponent of the “Back to Africa” and colonization movements. Despite these personal flaws and public characterizations of Turner, the University of Pennsylvania awarded Turner the title of Doctor of Literature in 1872; and Wilberforce University gave him the title of Doctor of Divinity in 1873. He died in Windsor, Ontario in 1915 while visiting friends.
Macon American Union, cited above
Bishop Henry M. Turner, Maisah B. Robinson