“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.

W.E.B. Du Bois on Separate Black Institutions

For centuries there have been Black institutions in America (Black churches, Black schools, Black organizations) which have existed in complex relationships to white institutions and the broader white society as a whole. An early example that captures some of the dynamics is Richard Allen, the white Methodist church, and the founding of the African Methodist Episocopal (AME) church:

By this time prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued with us in the church.

The Life, Experience and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen

The question of “segregation” is complex, and it really does matter whose vantage point you view it from. When wealthy and powerful white institutions enforce segregation as a means of excluding minorities from access to those resources, segregation is an evil injustice.

But when Black people voluntarily chose to leave the “white table” in order to “build their own tables” where they would be free from the dehumanizing discrimination pressed on them in these white institutions, this kind of “segregation” is a necessity, not an evil, and creates the necessary spaces for Black people to flourish, free of unjust restrictions or the white gaze. Recent years have seen a proliferation of Black-centric organizations who have grown weary of the resistance in white churches, seminaries, and organizations. The Witness, A Black Christian Collective, The Front Porch, and The Crete Collective come immediately to mind as examples who have moved away from proximity to white evangelicalism. Some have questioned this: “If having a white church is bad, then why is it okay to have a black church?” When considering this question, it’s important to note that “segregation” must viewed from at least two angles (maybe more!) and the two are asymmetrical. Who created the separation and who is responding to the separation created? Who is creating resistance and who is responding to that resistance?

In 1935 W.E.B. Du Bois published an article in the The Journal of Negro Education titled “Does the Negro need Separate Schools?” (available on JStor here). In it, Du Bois defends the existence of separate schools, but does so with a deep awareness of the complex realities facing Black people. I would suggest that many of these factors exist today, and that Du Bois’s observations are helpful for those considering, not just separate schools, but churches, seminaries, and other organizations as well.

Here are a few choice quotes:

The question which I am discussing is: Are these separate schools and institutions needed? And the answer, to my mind, is perfectly clear. They are needed just so far as they are necessary for the proper education of the Negro race. The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; such contact between pupils, and between teacher and pupil, on the basis of perfect social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education in equipment and housing, and the promotion of such extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life.

There are many public school systems in the North where Negroes are admitted and tolerated, but they are not educated; they are crucified. There are certain Northern universities where Negro students, no matter what their ability, desert, or accomplishment, cannot get fair recognition, either in classroom or on the campus, in dining halls and student activities, or in common human courtesy. It is well-known that in certain faculties of the University of Chicago, no Negro has yet received the doctorate and seldom can achieve the mastership in arts; at Harvard, Yale and Columbia, Negroes are admitted but not welcomed; while in other institutions, like Princeton, they cannot even enroll.

Manifestly, no general and inflexible rule can be laid down. If public opinion is such in Montclair that Negro children can not receive decent and sympathetic education in the white schools, and no Negro teachers can be employed, there is for us no choice. We have got to accept Negro schools. Any agitation and action aimed at compelling a rich and powerful majority of the citizens to do what they will not do, is useless… the futile attempt to compel even by law a group to do what it is determined not to do, is a silly waste of money, time, and temper.

Recognizing the fact that for the vast majority of colored students in elementary, secondary, and collegiate education, there must be today separate educational institutions because of an attitude on the part of the white people which is not going materially to change in our time, our customary attitude toward these separate schools must be absolutely and definitely changed.

It is difficult to think of anything more important for the development of a people than proper training for their children; and yet I have repeatedly seen wise and loving colored parents take infinite pains to force their little children into schools where the white children, white teachers, and white parents despised and resented the dark child, made mock of it, neglected or bullied it, and literally rendered its life a living hell Such parents want their child to ‘fight’ this thing out,–but, dear God, at what a cost! Sometimes, to be sure, the child triumphs and teaches the school community a lesson; but even in such cases, the cost may be high, and the child’s whole life turned into an effort to win cheap applause at the expense of healthy individuality.

We shall get a finer, better balance of spirit; an infinitely more capable and rounded personality by putting children in schools where they are wanted, and where they are happy and inspired, than in thrusting them into hells where they are ridiculed and hated.

Lack of faith in Negro enterprise leads to singular results: Negroes will fight frenziedly to prevent segregated schools; but if segregation is forced upon them by dominant white public opinion, they will suddenly lose interest and scarcely raise a finger to see that the resultant Negro schools get a fair share of the public funds so as to have adequate equipment and housing; to see that real teachers are appointed, and that they are paid as much as white teachers doing the same work. Today, when the Negro public school system gets from half to one-tenth of the amount of money spent on white schools, and is often consequently poorly run and poorly taught, colored people tacitly if not openly join with white people in assuming that Negroes cannot run Negro enterprises, and cannot educate them- selves, and that the very establishment of a Negro school means starting an inferior school… but why attribute this to a defect in the Negro race, and not to the fact that the large white colleges have from one hundred to one thousand times the funds for equipment and research that Negro colleges can command?

Conceive a Negro teaching in a Southern school the economics which he learned at the Harvard Business School! Conceive a Negro teacher of history retailing to his black students the sort of history that is taught at the University of Chicago! Imagine the history of Reconstruction being handed by a colored professor from the lips of Columbia professors to the ears of the black belt! The results of this kind of thing are often fantastic, and call for Negro history and sociology, and even physical science taught by men who understand their audience, and are not afraid of the truth.

Does the Negro need separate schools? God knows he does. But what he needs more than separate schools is a firm and unshakable belief that twelve million American Negroes have the inborn capacity to accomplish just as much as any nation of twelve million anywhere in the world ever accomplished, and that this is not because they are Negroes but because they are human.

So far, I have noted chiefly negative arguments for separate Negro institutions of learning based on the fact that in the majority of cases Negroes are not welcomed in public schools and universities nor treated as fellow human beings. But beyond this, there are certain positive reasons due to the fact that American Negroes have, because of their history, group experiences and memories, a distinct entity, whose spirit and reactions demand a certain type of education for its development.

Negroes must know the history of the Negro race in America, and this they will seldom get in white institutions. Their children ought to study textbooks like Brawley’s “Short History,” the first edition of Woodson’s “Negro in Our History,” and Cromwell, Turner and Dykes’ “Readings from Negro Authors.” Negroes who celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln, and the worthy, but colorless and relatively unimportant “founders” of various Negro colleges, ought not to forget the 5th of March,-that first national holiday of this country, which commemorates the martyrdom of Crispus Attucks. They ought to celebrate Negro Health Week and Negro History Week. They ought to study intelligently and from their own point of view, the slave trade, slavery, emancipation, Reconstruction, and present economic development.

In history and the social sciences the Negro school and college has an unusual opportunity and role. It does not consist simply in trying to parallel the history of white folk with similar boasting about black and brown folk, but rather an honest evaluation of human effort and accomplishment, without color blindness, and without transforming history into a record of dynasties and prodigies.

I know that this article will forthwith be interpreted by certain illiterate “nitwits” as a plea for segregated Negro schools and colleges. It is not. It is simply calling a spade a spade. It is saying in plain English: that a separate Negro school, where children are treated like human beings, trained by teachers of their own race, who know what it means to be black in the year of salvation 1935, is infinitely better than making our boys and girls doormats to be spit and trampled upon and lied to by ignorant social climbers, whose sole claim to superiority is ability to kick “n*****s” when they are down. I say, too, that certain studies and discipline necessary to Negroes can seldom be found in white schools.

(Photo by LinkedIn Sales Solutions on Unsplash)

“The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority”

Fall 2020 I took a class on “the problem of evil,” and decided to write a paper exploring Richard Ishmael McKinney’s work on the problem of evil from a Black perspective.

McKinney earned his Bachelor of Divinity at Newton Theological Institution in 1934 and wrote a thesis paper on “The Problem of Evil and its Relation to the Ministry to an Underprivileged Minority.” McKinney would go on to a PhD at Yale, and then a lifelong academic career in philosophy in Historically Black Colleges and Universities. McKinney’s life spans nearly the entire range of the 20th Century as a Black academic serving in Black schools, though unfortunately his academic career would essentially remain behind the shadow of ‘The Color Line’ of segregation and Jim Crow.

Here’s the introduction to the paper:

All of the work on the problem of evil that I have been exposed to has been written by white theologians and philosophers, either Christian or otherwise. Often their examples and reflections betray their status from the highest of upper classes, those afforded the opportunity to pursue PhD level education at elite universities, and then to go on to academic and publishing careers. Yet an important voice seems missing, the voice of the marginalized. Interestingly, there are identifiable traditions of Black Theology and Black Philosophy that have wrestled with the problem of evil from within the context of the Black experience in the United States. This paper will explore one vein within these traditions, that provided by Richard I. McKinney (1906–2005), and the thinkers he engaged with, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Thurman, seeking to discover what unique contribution this tradition has to offer to our thinking on this topic.  We find that Black theologians have a unique perspective on the Problem of Evil from their perspective within a marginalized community, a perspective that is vital to hear when engaging this subject.

The bibliography includes as nearly a complete c.v. for McKinney as I could construct.

You can read the whole thing here:

Here are a few quotes:

These peoples voice their experience thus: “Why must I or my people suffer? Is my kind cursed of God? Why, if God is good, does he let injustice go on? Is not God himself partial to certain races? What about these inequalities in human life?” In the face of these questions, McKinney asks: “What in view of these facts, are the resources of religion for such suffering?”

McKinney would later suggest that “Doubtless Jesus himself would be outraged if he were to witness in the flesh some of the un-Christian and undemocratic practices of the institution and people which bear his name.”

McKinney claims that “In general, the Negro spirituals represent one of the most significant aspects of Negro life in America.” Here it is worth pausing to make an observation regarding theological method. Normally, students of theology focus our attention on written texts, great works of systematic theology or philosophical theology. One thinks of the “Great Books,” including works by Jonathan Edwards or (for some traditions) the great Reformed Theologian Robert Lewis Dabney. Why is it that we don’t have works of theology from the same time period written by Black Christians and thinkers? Individual theologians like Jonathan Edwards or Robert Lewis Dabney were afforded the luxury of time and energy to think and to write, in part, because they owned African slaves. Theological institutions like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary were sustained, in part, by the labor of slaves and the financial support of slave-owners. What could the enslaved produce? Songs. And a case could be made that the source material for a more genuine form of Christianity will be found in these spirituals, than in the books that were written on the backs of those who sang them.

Howard Thurman captures the deep paradox and opportunity seen in Black Christianity: “the slave took over the religion of the master and became a traditional Christian. In many ways this fact is amazing as well as ironical. It was a fateful moment in the life of the new world when the African slave was brought face to face with the Christian religion. It may be that then, as now, this black minority was called upon to redeem a religion that the master and his posterity disgraced in their midst.”

In facing the problem, McKinney does not want us to pull any punches: “he would be Christian in this world must not close his eyes to any of its facts. The problem of evil and suffering is a fact, and a very immediate one for many people; and as such it cannot be lightly explained away. We must not be afraid to look at life with open eyes.”

McKinney regularly referred to a quote from Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History: “the noted historian Arnold Toynbee asserted that it is likely that a revitalization of Christianity, if it comes at all, will come as a result of the religion of the Black people.”

Christians seeking to find a more authentic expression of Christianity, the family of those who follow the crucified and risen Lord, would do well to look to the Black church tradition, and will find there abundant resources for engaging the problem of evil, and numerous other situations as well.