“Your place is behind”: Henry McNeal Turner’s critique of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (1878)

The Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute of Hampton, Virginia was founded in 1868 by Samual Armstrong with the help of the American Missionary Association. Armstrong served as the president from 1868 to 1893.

Hampton’s most famous graduate was Booker T. Washington, who graduated in 1875 and then taught at the school until 1881 when he founded the Tuskegee Institute in the same “Industrial” model as Hampton.

Unfortunately, one of Armstrong’s fundamental goals for the school was to mold African Americans to accept their place of subordination in the post-Reconstruction South (for a detailed treatment of this, see James D. Armstrong, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935).

Henry McNeal Turner

Anderson notes that “Black criticisms of Hampton Institute received national attention in the Afro-American press during the late 1870s” (63). One such criticism came from Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915). Turner was a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first chaplain in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, and was elected to the state legislature of Georgia during Reconstruction.

In 1878, Turner visited Hampton Institute. He had apparently been considering sending his daughter to attend school there, and had heard much about it, and wanted to see it for himself. His critique, published in the Christian Recorder (May 2, 1878) captures in a few paragraphs the core of the racialized problems at Hampton. It is interesting to note that Booker T. Washington was a teacher in the school at the time, and thus Anderson’s observation that Black criticisms of the “Hampton-Tuskegee Idea” which Armstrong started at Hampton and Washington carried forward at Tuskegee “long predated the Washington-DuBois debates of the early twentieth century and represented a persistent strain of black protest against the Hampton-Tuskegee Idea for the training of black educators and leaders” (65).

Here is Turner’s critique transcribed in full (an original source can be accessed here):



By Dr. Turner


Theological Class at Raleigh—Portsmouth and Norfolk—Fine Congregations at each place—Hampton Normal School—Devotional Exercises—Class Recitations—Fine Buildings—How Visitors are Treated—Ladies Department—Poorly Educated—Negroes Not Capable of Higher Studies—You are Black and I am White—Change of Teachers Needed, &c.


Mr. Editor:—In my Dots and Jots about Raleigh, N.C., I neglected to mention a sight rarely witnessed in this country, viz. a white lady, (whose name I forgot) teaching a theological class, composed in the main of young ministers of the A.M.E. Church, though I believe two or three other denominations are represented. Their text book in Divinity, is Watson’s Theological Institutes, one of the weightiest theological works in the English language; yet this delicate and most lady drills these young men in its most difficult and abstruse subjects with apparent ease and familiarity. I recollect of no similar instance, for ladies, as a general rule, regard theology as something entirely out of their sphere. Leaving Raleigh, I proceeded to Norfolk, VA., where I stopped most of to he time at Mrs. Williams’ Boarding house. I essayed to preach for Rev. W. H. Brown, in Portsmouth on Sabbath afternoon to a fine congregation and for Rev. J. E. Cook in Norfolk at night. The churches were densely crowded and richness of attire and refinement of demeanor everywhere were dominant. These congregations have made rapid improvement since I first visited them during the war.

Elders Brown and Cook are both very popular, and command immense auditories. I lectured at the A. M. E. Church in Norfolk Monday night to a fine assembly of people, and was listened to very attentively.

Tuesday morning I went to Hampton to visit the Normal School of which I had heard much, and had considerable anxiety to see. The impressions gathered there were multifarious. I liked it and I didn’t. I arrived juts as the students were being exercised in a military drill, and must say the sight was grand. How much my predilections had to do with it, I cannot say, but as an old United States Chaplain, the sight might have been favorable because of my familiarity with the exercises. In a few moments, they all filed into the Chapel for devotional services. They sand with a vim and a sweetness, if not with artistic melody; yet is is nothing strange for colored people to sing, and I need scarcely mention it. Prayer was offered by some white gentleman, whose fervency was not discernible in hi supplications, though his faith might have been strong. I looked around in the Chapel, and must say its structure is everything desirable. On the walls I noticed likenesses of several notable characters, hanging in fine frames, giving to the walls attractiveness and beauty. Among them I noticed Washington, Wesley, Greeley, Sumner, Hayes, Andrew Johnson and Gen. Lee. What the two last had ever done for the colored people, I could not tell. I looked in vain for Grant or Butler, who was the founder of Schools in Hampton. After devotional services were over, and the latest news was read of any importance, a planisphere was brought in, and the most advanced class, (the one that will graduate in a few months) were exercised a little in astronomy. As I was somewhat familiar with this branch of science, having lectured upon it quite often, I naturally opened my eyes and ears to see and hear all i could. I was soon informed, however, that the teacher knew comparatively nothing about it, and the lass knew, if possible, less than nothing.

In Justice, however, to this class, I would say that astronomy is not a part of their studies, and this recitation was a little digression for the purpose of giving some distant idea of that science, before the class graduates.

I then visited a class room, where they appeared to be teaching agricultural and horticultural chemistry. Here i confess I was as much pleased with the thorough and rigid training apparently being imparted to the students. Indeed it was the only class I was profoundly pleased with. Whether the credit is due to the teachers’ individual interest and effort, or the purpose of the school to make that a specialty, I can not say.

My next observations were in a class room, where geographical recitations were in progress. Here I was more pleased with the improved system of teaching geography, than with any thing else. This about completed my literary observations.

One thing I must say in regard to the school building however. It is a grand structure, spacious rooms, and every convenience apparently that heart could wish; and cleanliness prevailed in every department I looked. But during my nearly two hours’ stay, not a teacher asked me to sit down, made a solitary explanation, gave me a welcome look, nor shown me the civility of a visitor, while I was in the building. When I would walk into a room, the teachers and students alike, would throw a glance at me, and thus end their courtesies. This was so very different from the High School and university manners at Scotia, Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Jefferson, and indeed everywhere that I scarcely know how to interpret it, except upon the ground that “we have no time to bother with you here.” Nevertheless, I noticed when white visitors came in, chairs were offered them, etc. During my perambulations through the school edifice, I chanced to meet one of the lady teachers, rather at leisure, and I engaged her at a venture with a few words.

Said I, “you have a splendid institution here; have you a class in the higher branches?”

Said she, “what do you mean by the higher branches?”

“Well,” said I, “I mean algebra, geometry, or the higher mathematics in general, Greek, Latin, and sciences, etc.”

“Oh,” said she, “the colored people are not prepared for those studies yet. They are too ignorant. It will be time enough to talk about that years from this time.”

Her reply was enough. I wanted to hear no more. It set me a fire. I simply said, “The colored people in Virginia must be unpardonably ignorant, if your statement be correct. That does not apply to them in any other State North or South in this country,” and with these remarks, I left the house.

I did not see General Armstrong. I cannot speak his sentiments, but, of this I am satisfied, that there is a great want of respect among the white teachers of the Hampton Normal School for the colored race. I am as sure that negro inferiority is taught by act, if not by word, as I am that the alphabet is taught. And Gen. Armstrong had better revise his corps of teachers, and get those who respect the race the are teaching. They no more compare with those at Atlanta, Georgia, and many other places, than moon light compares with the sun, in those elements of character, that impart manhood inspirations to our people. After leaving the main building, I went over to the Ladies Department, and one of the white ladies, possibly the matron, sent a beautiful young colored lady to show me through the building. Here, I seemed to have fallen into another atmosphere. This lady was polite and respectful, and the young Miss, who served as my conductor, had evidently imbibed her spirit. She carried me from bottom to top, showed me every thing, and to the credit of all concerned, a grand sight it was. I cannot describe the edifice now. Suffice to say, that every thing was in superb order, and to human observation was as clear as the snow flakes of heaven.

Besides, a variety of fancy and artistic work is taught the lady students, which is calculated to support and enrich them, if they will only make use of it. If the young ladies who come out of Hampton School do not make good house keepers, good wives and mothers, so far as neatness, cleanliness, and household work is concerned, it will be because they are miserably lazy, and not because the proper training has not been given. But as I conclude this letter, I will finish by saying the buildings, yards, walks &c., have a classic appearance, and the school ought to be raised to the dignity of a College or University. Every thing is there for it, the whole surroundings, landscapes, views, &c., are fitted for the highest culture. But the teachers are not fitted for the work they are now trying to do.

They are either in the whole ex-slaveholders themselves, or are pandering to the spirit of slavery. The graduates they send out can not be called educated by any means, for they have not near the learning given by a respectable grammar school. They would not employ one of their own students to teach a class; and I do not blame them, for when they graduate their students, they know nothing comparatively—judging from what I heard and saw in the class that is to be graduated this summer. Besides, I think colored children are taught to remember, “you are negroes,” and as such, “your place is behind.”

Nevertheless, associated with the school are some grand things, and indispensable life prerequisites. With some corrections, it would be a grand place for our children. But as I went to make arrangement to send one of my daughters there, I have declined the idea after seeing it for myself.