White Gods and Black Devils: The Rhetoric of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner-Pt. 1

06/02/2015 04:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2016

In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the death of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner (February 1, 1834-May 8, 2015).

Henry McNeal Turner's writing focused on much during the post reconstruction period. One of the first major debates Turner found himself in was on African missions and emigration. In 1881, he criticized the editor of the Christian Recorder on not doing enough to promote African missions. Not only did he blame him for the "missionary apathy that prevails in our church," he also offered a challenge. Turner wrote, "Give me your editorial chair for twelve months, and if I do not inflame the church with the spirit of the missions, then count me out forever, and if I can do it, you can do it; you are a better scholar than I am; your reading is vast." Turner continued

You say I have always professed great interest in Africa, etc. Whether you speak this ironically or not, I am not able to divine; I think, however, you do. Nevertheless, you utter a grand truth when you speak. I both profess and possess an interest in the salvation of millions of Africa that I am proud of; and whenever I lose it, I hope I will die. I had rather be dead than not possess that interest. How any negro can profess Christianity and be dead to the moral wants of his kinsmen in Africa, is to me a mystery....I weave Africa into all my prayers, sermons, lectures, addresses and admonitions; but for all that I am not going to jump up and run over there on a wild goose chase without being able to do something

The African question, as many AME leaders called it, continued throughout this period. During the first half of 1883, Turner debated the merits of African mission and emigration in the pages of the Recorder with a host of interlocutors. When some began to criticize Africa and offered that the majority of African Americans could care less about Africa, Turner disagreed. In one letter, Turner wrote

There are a host of us who see our condition from another standpoint, and our future equally as differently, and that host believes that Africa somehow is to give the relief for which our people sigh, and not the theories and speculations of Dr.Tanner, founded in moral philosophy though they be

What would become a constant and consistent refrain through the rest of his life, Turner argued that many of these "recognized leaders" were simply out of touch with the majority of African Americans--many who resided in the South. When challenged that the majority of African Americans did not care about Africa, Turner wrote

In some portions of the country it is the topic of conservation, and if a line of steamers were started from New Orleans, Mobile Savannah or Charleston, they would be crowded to density every trip they made to Africa. There is a general unrest and a wholesale dissatisfaction among our people in a number of sections of the country to my certain knowledge, and they sigh for conveniences to and from the continent of Africa. Something has to be done. Matters cannot go on as at present, and the remedy is thought by tens of thousands to be in a negro nationality. This much the history of the world establishes, that races either fossilized, oppressed or degraded, must immigrate before any material change takes place in their civil, intellectual or moral status, otherwise extinction is the sequence.

Turner suggested that it was a "very easy thing for a few ministers in Philadelphia" to meet and have a "jolly time dealing in technicalities and theories." Turner continued

But it is another thing to have your sweat and blood devoured yearly by the vampires of a nation which is deaf to your cries and blind to your agonies. Justice in this country for the black man, from the Supreme Court of the United States down to the City Recorder, is a farce. The same virus runs through all the executive departments, National and State

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