This month I’ve enjoyed from the front page of our paper with stories on how some of our county’s leaders will celebrate Black History Month. This month has been a celebration of Black history for me, too, though I’m arriving late to one particular celebration. Having lived in Marietta since I was eight years old, I have driven past Turner Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church thousands of times and it’s shameful that I’ve failed to celebrate its namesake until this month.
Working toward a doctorate, I’ve been taking a course in seminary, and this week I came across this paragraph in one of my assigned readings: The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, by Jamar Tisby:
“Clergy often had the most education and influence in the Black community and were more likely to be engaged in politics… This made Black church leaders natural targets of white supremacist brutality. One such minister singled out for silencing by the Ku Klux Klan was Henry McNeal Turner, a well-known and sometimes controversial bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Born in 1834, Turner led a remarkable life as the first chaplain for “colored troops” during the Civil War, as a state legislator in Georgia, and as a bishop in the AME church during a period of unprecedented denominational growth.”
A quick search of Turner Chapel’s website revealed a truth I should have long been celebrating. Not only was this neighboring church named for the legendary leader in the AME church, but it was pastored by him. Turner served this congregation a decade after its 37 founding members organized the congregation. Before Turner arrived, and just as the congregation started growing, the church I serve (First Presbyterian) offered them their building!
As a child growing up in our Marietta City Schools, Black History Month was always celebrated. Thanks to this effort, I grew up watching “Little Boy King” and I learned the names of a few of the noteworthy African Americans who shaped our country, like George Washington Carver, Harriett Tubman, and Rosa Parks. But our scope has been far too limited. Often, we fail to celebrate those who shaped and changed our own community. I suspect that the congregation of Turner Chapel AME celebrates his legacy every Sunday, but shouldn’t we all be proud of this great man whose courage and faith shaped our nation and local community?
The paragraph I cited above mentions the KKK’s attempt to silence Turner. What is clear to me is that he need be silenced in Marietta no longer. The old saying goes, “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” This month let us be bold to remember all those who have shaped and changed our community for the better, that we might be more open to hearing all of the voices, valuing all of the contributions, and seeing all of God’s children as we move into what I hope will be a brighter and more equitable future.
Rev. Joe Evans
First Presbyterian Church