Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Henry McNeal Turner versus the Tuskegee Machine: Black Leadership in the Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro History

Henry McNeal Turner versus the Tuskegee Machine: Black Leadership in the Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

African American nation building between 1865 and 1899 was intended to be a part of a new nation coming together out of the national fragmentation that characterized the antebellum period. Reconstruction and its aftermath destroyed that goal. African Americans found themselves confronting not full citizenship after 1865 and 1877, but the need to find alternatives to the emerging problem of second class citizenship. African American leadership, according to historian Vincent P. Franklin, has, at times, been closely aligned with the African American masses. At other instances that leadership lacked consistency.(1) By 1899, African Americans were in a state of transition from an entire generation that had known slavery as well as freedom to a people seeking the boundaries of full citizenship in the United States. The vision of the earlier generation, after freedom was obtained in 1865, was to build a free-thinking African American society within the social, economic, and political structures of the United States.

Black Nationalism was one method utilized by African Americans to combat the problems of post-Reconstruction America. In 1899, white violence against African Americans was still a major part of the national effort to define the place and status of African Americans. It was also a transition point in Black Nationalism as the representatives of African American autonomy after the Civil War - preachers, teachers and ministers - were challenged for the right to lead, mold, and determine the direction of the African American masses as a force in Southern United States society. Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, a preacher, and Booker T. Washington, a teacher, were both instrumental in defining Black Nationalism. Turner represented a newly freed African American populace whose primary experience was slavery. Bishop Turner served the African American lower class and gave them a voice through his ministry, religious and political organizing, vision, and support for emigration. Henry M. Turner was working to build an African American community within the structure of a newly unified nation - the United States. Additionally, he was part of an African American community attempting to define freedom and first class citizenship. The frustrations generated by racial violence and other obstacles to African American advancement caused Turner and the lower class to be disillusioned with the United States. Henry McNeal Turner represented the values of the grassroots and their goals and was, perhaps, more aligned with the aims of African Americans than Washington.

Booker T. Washington provided a different approach to Black Nationalism. Washington served a new class of people. "The Wizard of Tuskegee" sought to train the middle class and elite to teach, guide, and lead the African American masses. He also helped construct an African American society seeking ways to deal with a new question, segregation.

White racial violence in 1899 pulled Turner and Washington again upon the regional and national stage. It forced each man to respond. Violence helped define the place of African Americans in United States society. It also influenced the direction of Black Nationalism as it moved from a circumstance involving the freedom of African Americans to a movement shaped by segregation. This study examines the transition from freedom to segregation and the violence that brought the change into focus.

By 1899 Bishop Henry McNeal Turner's star was setting behind the onrushing presence of Booker T. Washington. W. E. B. DuBois and others had yet to rise in opposition to accommodation. Bishop Turner's influence, as scholar Gayraud Wilmore suggested, would not be matched by the "radical churchmen in the Niagara Movement and later . . . the NAACP." These leaders would garner their support from the rising African American middle class, while Turner "had the grassroots." Even DuBois characterized the Bishop as the last of his clan.(2) Turner represented the antebellum and Reconstruction ministerial leadership that experienced slavery and had limited access to education. …

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