Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.
Henry McNeal Turner, the first black chaplain in the Union Army and one of the most prominent religious and political leaders of Civil War era black America, was born a free black on Feb. 1, 1834, in New Berry Court House, S.C. Turner was the oldest child of Hardy Turner and Sarah Greer Turner, and while we do not know much about Turner’s other siblings, we do know that Turner’s father died while he was still young.
Even though born as a free person, Turner still experienced the harsh reality of prejudice and racism; he worked in cotton fields alongside enslaved people as well as in a blacksmith shop under some of the harshest overseers.
When Turner was “eight or nine years old,” he later recalled, he had a dream that placed him in front of a large crowd of both blacks and whites who looked to him for instruction. The dream not only became a guiding light for Turner, but it also gave Turner a desire for education. However, state laws at the time did not allow blacks, enslaved or free, to attend school or to learn how to read and write. After obtaining a spelling book, Turner attempted to learn how to read and write with the help of several people in his community. But each time Turner would begin to study, others would find out and have the teaching stopped. Having learned only a little from his teachers, Turner attempted to learn to read and write on his own — by the time he was 15, he had read the entire Bible five times and started a habit of memorizing lengthy passages of scripture, which helped him develop a strong memory.
Turner attended revival services with his mother and finally joined the Methodist church in Abbeville, S.C., in 1848. His “conversion,” as he called it, came in 1851 under the preaching of plantation missionary Samuel Leard in a camp meeting at Sharon Camp Ground. In his conversion experience, Turner remembered rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth and agonizing under conviction until he felt the presence of Christ in his life. Soon after, Turner became convinced that the dream he had earlier was a call to preach the gospel.
Licensed to preach in the mixed-race Southern Methodist Church at 19 years old, Turner spoke before to large integrated audiences. But he found it frustrating that the Southern Methodist Church would never ordain him, and that as a licensed exhorter he had already achieved the highest level a black person could attain in the denomination. Instead, he joined the all-black African Methodist Episcopal church in 1858. Four years later he became pastor of Israel A.M.E. church in Washington.
Not long after, Abraham Lincoln commissioned Turner to the office of chaplain in the Union Army, making him the first black chaplain in any branch of the military. In this capacity, he also became a war correspondent, writing articles for The Christian Recorder newspaper about the trials and tribulations of the First Regiment, United States Colored Troops. When the war ended, he found himself assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Georgia as a chaplain.
Leaving the military for good in 1866, Turner turned his attention to politics. During the period of Reconstruction, and while still working with the Freedmen’s Bureau, Turner became a Republican Party organizer and helped recruit and organize black voters throughout Georgia. He helped establish the first Republican state convention, and helped draft a new Georgia state constitution. Elected later as one of the first African Americans in the Georgia Legislature, Turner believed that change had finally come. He garnered support and respect from black people by organizing Loyal Leagues and Equal Rights Associations.
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However, any excitement that Turner or black people in general had for ushering in a new day after the Civil War disappeared quickly when white members of the state legislature voted in 1868 to disqualify blacks from holding elected office. After his ouster from the Georgia state legislature, Turner became the postmaster in Macon, Ga., the first African American to hold that position. However, pressures began to mount on the federal government to dismiss Turner based on trumped-up improprieties. Fired after only two weeks in office, Turner then took a position as a customs inspector in Savannah, Ga. He held this position for several years, but eventually resigned from this position because of increasing demands of the church.
Turner then focused his efforts on building the A.M.E. Church in the South; by 1876, he had become the church’s publications manager. This allowed him to travel to all the districts and meet the pastors and leaders of local churches. During the next four years, he developed a following that led to his election in 1880 as one of the bishops of the church. Turner finally had a national platform to espouse his ideas on race, politics, lynching and other issues of the day. However, as racism became more of an issue for blacks, Turner increasingly became a proponent of emigration.
Toward the end of the 19th century, after several failed attempts at an emigration plan and with the rise of a new generation of black leaders like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois, Turner’s influence started to wane. He edited two newspapers — The Voice of Missions, from 1893 to 1900, and The Voice of the People, from 1901 to 1904 – served as chair of the board of Morris Brown College from 1896-1908, and kept a busy schedule up to the end of his life. He was in Windsor, Ont., at the general conference of the A.M.E. church in 1915 when he suffered a massive stroke. He died hours later at a Windsor hospital.
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Andre E. Johnson is an associate professor of rhetoric and religion and African American studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. He is the author of “The Forgotten Prophet: Bishop Henry McNeal Turner and the African American prophetic Tradition.”