Henry McNeal Turner was born free in 1843 in Abbeville, South Carolina, but because of his family's poverty, worked in the cotton fields as a child. In addition, state laws prohibited him from fulfilling a desire to learn to read and write because of his race.
At age 15, Turner ran away to work as a janitor in a law firm, where law clerks risked criminal prosecution to help him become literate, and he also found his voice as a powerful speaker. Soon after, he began a career in the ministry that lasted until his death on May 8, 1915.
After receiving a license to preach in 1853, Turner became an itinerate minister, traveling throughout the South. He also spent a lot of time leading revivals in Georgia. He and his wife Eliza Peacher, whom he married in 1856, had 14 children, but only a few survived into adulthood.
Turner ultimately became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, serving in Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.
He helped organize the First Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops, and in 1863, was appointed by President Andrew Jackson to serve as the regiment's chaplain, becoming the first Black to hold that role in the U.S. Army.
Turner was the AME denomination's first southern bishop and the first to ordain a woman as a deacon. He is believed to have founded more than 100 churches and also helped organize the Georgia Republican Party. Turner also was elected a state representative in 1868, but with 14 other Black lawmakers was expelled from the legislature after white members rebelled.
Turner became a vocal advocate of the "back to Africa" movement, and declaring that "God is a negro," turned his attention to encouraging Blacks to develop racial pride. Turner died in 1915 during a business trip in Windsor, Ontario. Twenty-five thousand people attended his funeral in Atlanta, where his portrait hangs in the state capitol.
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