I met Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner – so to speak – in 2005 when I started processing his collection at the Smithsonian Institution Anacostia Community Museum as a volunteer. Little did I know then that this auspicious encounter would take me into a new career as a museum curator and to a much more amplified knowledge of Dr. Turner’s work.
Turner (1890-1972) was the first African American linguist, yet his work had an impact well beyond the field of linguistics. It became important in African American history, Afro-Brazilian cultural history, transatlantic history, the area of Creole Studies, and anthropology. His research started in the early 1930s in South Carolina and Georgia when he interviewed Gullah speakers. It continued in the 1940s in Brazil, when he worked with the people of the Candomblé houses of worship (terreiros), primarily in Bahia, and in Africa in the 1950s when he researched mostly in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
His work was as pertinent, and as relevant 80 years after it started, that in 2010, the Anacostia Community Museum presented an exhibit telling the history of his life and work: ’Word Shout Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Community through Language.’ The Museum also convened that same year a symposium – ’Connecting the Worlds of the African Diaspora: The Living Legacy of Lorenzo Dow Turner’ – that featured representatives from the fields of history, anthropology, linguistics, civil activism, and journalism. The variety of the areas represented at the Symposium was a testament to the endurance and extended reach of Turner’s work.
My new career, launched after my encounter with Turner back in 2005, thrived. After volunteering for three years helping process Turner’s collection, I was hired as a contractor by the Museum in 2008 to create the exhibit on his life and work. I was then appointed as a museum curator in 2009 and have been at the Anacostia Community Museum since. The exhibit traveled to venues in South Carolina, Florida, and Chicago, Illinois. Then it was translated into Portuguese, under the auspices of the United States Department of State, and was shown in Brazil, in São Paulo and Salvador, Bahia, in 2015.
The essence of Turner’s work was how he could connect the communities of the African diaspora, even before he was able to go to Africa, through language. Starting with his pioneer work among the Gullah, continuing with his studies in London and his visit to the Exposition Internationale in Paris, through his sojourn in Bahia and finally into his visit to African countries in the 1950s, he could always connect his audiences to other peoples by playing his recordings. 
Unfortunately, much of the material collected by Lorenzo Dow Turner among the Gullah, in Brazil and in Africa remains unexplored to this day. A new generation of researchers may dedicate themselves to further exploration and use of this valuable asset. Until then, I hope that this document will provide an overview of the many possibilities. 
The estimated 645,000 Africans who were brought to the territory now occupied by the United States to be enslaved had something that gave them identity and from which they could not be parted despite the violence of capture, the horrors of the Middle Passage, and the despoilment of enslavement – their native language. They arrived in America speaking Bambara, Ewe, Fon, Fante, Fulani, Hausa, Kongo, Kimbundu, Vai, and Mende, among other languages. They had to acquire the rudiments of English under enslavement, and they eventually lost the fluent use of their native languages. Still, many of them did not forget their native languages altogether. As they saw an animal or plant that reminded them of one in their native land, they named it in their language. As much as they could, they cooked foods that were similar to what they had eaten at home, and they called those foods in their native languages. They passed along to their children customs, celebrations, and songs they had learned in their native lands. More fundamentally, they named their children with African names, a compelling way of maintaining African identity. In the process, in areas where enslaved people were the majority population and were distant from centers of white dominance, they created their own Creole language – an amalgamation of words from many African languages and English – to communicate among themselves.
Yet, until the 1930s in the United States, it was believed that African Americans had not retained any knowledge of their ancestors’ culture and language. Scholars dismissed Gullah, the language spoken in the Sea Islands along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, as ’baby talk’ or simply ’bad English.’ All that was changed by the breakthrough research of Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner. Through his pioneering studies, he proved that Gullah was a Creole language with words and a distinctive grammar derived from African languages. The Gullah also had retained some African customs, especially in naming their children.
This article tells the history of the life and work of Dr. Turner and his enormous contribution to African American scholarship and linguistics, his journeys through the worlds of the African Diaspora, his quest to bring knowledge of Africa to the United States, and the relevance and significance of his work nine decades later.
Roots of Excellence: 1799-1906
When Lorenzo Dow Turner was born in 1890, his African American family was already in its fourth generation of freedom. The Turner clan had started around 1799 in Gates County, North Carolina, with the relationship between Sally Rooks, a white woman of Scottish-Irish descent, and an enslaved man named Jacob Brady. Brady probably belonged to Sally’s father, Joseph Rooks. Sally and Jacob had four daughters in twelve years. These daughters were born free since the South of the United States statutes stipulated that a child’s legal status followed that of the mother. The last daughter, Margaret (Peggy), was born around 1812. On April 17, 1828, Peggy married Daniel Turner, a free man of color who was a landowner and a Baptist minister who knew how to read and write. They would be the paternal grandparents of Lorenzo Dow Turner. They had twelve children, and the Turner clan was known as being ’up-headed people,’ meaning that they were hardworking, well-educated for the times, and were able to buy land.
Rooks Turner, Daniel and Peggy’s ninth child, was born on October 24, 1844, in Pasquotank County, North Carolina. Because of his race, he could not attend school until after the Civil War, but in 1866 he was admitted at a school established by the Freedmen’s Bureau and, even though he was already in his twenties, he entered first grade. By 1877, only twelve years after the Civil War, Rooks Turner had completed his college degree at Howard University and returned to Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to teach. He married Elizabeth Sessoms in 1880, and they had four boys: Shelby, who died as an infant in 1883; Rooks Jr., who died in 1912 while a medical student at Howard University; Arthur, who graduated from Howard University with a law degree; and Lorenzo Dow, who was born on October 21, 1890. By the time his youngest child was born, Rooks Turner had been teaching in North Carolina for many years. He founded the first public school for African Americans in the eastern section of the state and a teacher’s college, which would become the foundation for today’s Elizabeth City State University.
Rooks Turner’s prosperous life and successful career as an educational leader in Elizabeth City came to an abrupt end in the fall of 1896. He was involved in an altercation with a white man and had to leave town overnight, fleeing for his life. He would never return. Nevertheless, his contributions to the education of the African American community in North Carolina were well-remembered into the 1970s by octogenarians who had benefited from his efforts in their younger years.
Left behind without means, Elizabeth Turner had to relinquish all of the family’s property to pay taxes and work as a seamstress and washerwoman for white households to support her children. Lorenzo Dow Turner was just six years old when his father had to leave the family. Yet, he had received enough influence from him to understand the need for education. That example, combined with his tenacious personality and high intellect, would shape his life. The roots of Lorenzo Dow Turner’s excellence had been well planted.
By 1901 the Turner family had been reunited in Rockville, Maryland, where Rooks Turner, who had obtained a Master’s Degree from Howard University, was working in the public school system. Turner went to elementary and middle school in Rockville. Years later, he recalled that the activity that he had most enjoyed had been public speaking. So much so that in 1906 he had been awarded a gold medal and twenty gold dollars for excellence in oratory. 
Student Years: Howard and Harvard, 1906-1917
Turner entered Howard University’s high school in 1906. He worked throughout his high school years to help support his family. After he entered college at Howard in 1910, Turner received a challenging classical education and graduated in 1914. Years later, he stated that the most interesting subjects he had studied were ancient and modern languages, undoubtedly the beginning of his passion for languages. He also had two favorite extracurricular activities: debating and baseball. Baseball, in addition to other jobs, would soon become a source of much-needed income.
Before baseball’s integration, all-black baseball teams were very much in vogue. Many companies allowed their black employees to form baseball teams and play during their off-hours. Turner was able to combine his ability as a baseball player and his job as a waiter when he worked summers for the Fall River Steamship Line. He worked in the Commonwealth’s dining room, the largest passenger liner operating between New York and Fall River, Massachusetts.
The steamship’s famous dining room was located on the upper deck, fifty feet above the water. Clad in his waiter uniform, Turner served a select clientele of politicians, financiers, and socialites. After dining room duties were over, Turner and his African American teammates on the Commonwealth Giants team went down the gangway to the baseball parks in all the New England towns along the boat route. At the end of the summer, Turner divided the money he had earned between his tuition and his mother, who by then was definitely and irreconcilably separated from his father. Turner followed this routine except in the summer of 1913. That year, he went to Chicago to work as a waiter at the Auditorium Hotel’s tenth-floor dining room. This would be the beginning of a circle that would be completed many years later.
During his years as a student at Howard, Turner turned the heads of the female students because he was so handsome. He was voted the ’Most Handsome’ senior. He was soon dating a young beauty named Geneva Calcier Townes. He married her in 1919. Although they eventually divorced, she played an important part in the beginning of his Gullah research.
Right after graduation, Turner took a year off to work and save money for graduate school. His first job out of college was as a Pullman car porter. The job soon ended when the inexperienced novice let passengers off the train at the wrong station. Nevertheless, Turner must have had a taste of the indignities that the Pullman porters had to deal with on a daily basis.
When Lorenzo Dow Turner was accepted to pursue a Master’s degree at Harvard University, he had been preceded by luminaries such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who in 1895 had been the first African American to receive a Ph.D. at the prestigious school; Alain Locke, who had graduated in 1907 with degrees in English and philosophy; and Carter G. Woodson, who had graduated just three years earlier with a Ph.D. in history. As he started his studies in the fall of 1915, Turner was well aware that he needed to study very hard to succeed and work even harder to pay for his education. He could not count on help from his family or from scholarships that were not available at the time. Years later, he remembered that his day was divided into a rigid schedule – eight hours to work, four hours to sleep, and twelve hours to study. The pressure allowed Turner to learn how to concentrate no matter what activity was taking place around him.
Turner continued working weekends and school breaks aboard the Commonwealth and playing baseball for the Commonwealth Giants from 1915 to 1917. Being so well organized, he found time to learn Italian and French during the summer of 1916. He also managed to attend a Friday afternoon dance at the Dreamland Pavilion in Fall River on September 1 of that same year, no doubt to bid farewell to a busy summer as a waiter and baseball player.
At the time of his graduation from Harvard in 1917, Turner was twenty-seven years of age. Intellectually he stood well above the average African American man who was either trapped in the degrading system of sharecropping in the South or doing menial work in the North without significant advancement possibilities.
Lorenzo Dow Turner, 1917. Lorenzo Dow Turner received a Master’s degree in English from Harvard University in 1917.
Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Lois Turner Williams.
Academic Career: 1917-1970
After obtaining his Master’s degree at Harvard, Turner accepted a position to teach English at his alma mater, Howard University. It was a comfortable fit, and of course, there was no possibility of an appointment at a white university. As Turner very aptly stated years later, ’. . . when I came through there were no colleges appointing Negroes . . . I guess it just never occurred to them that Negroes have to have jobs as well as others.’ (Axford 1981: 133) Turner’s career at Howard was immediately successful. He worked as an instructor from 1917 to 1920 and then rose to professor and Head of the Department of English.
He was a demanding teacher, and he impressed his students. Zora Neale Hurston, who would study Anthropology under Franz Boas in the 1920s, and would become a famous writer and one of the Harlem Renaissance’s central figures, briefly considered the idea of becoming an English teacher, so enchanted was she with her debonair professor. Dorothy Porter, who became a librarian and director of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, stated in 1966 that she would ’always remember [Turner’s] thoroughness in imparting knowledge.’ 
Conscious of the need to further his education, Turner applied and was admitted in 1919 to the University of Chicago to pursue his Ph.D. Lack of money was always a factor, for he continued to support his mother. In the summer of 1919, Turner attended classes and worked as a waiter at the Windermere Hotel near the university’s campus. He was caught in the Chicago riot during what became known as the Red Summer, when mobs of racist whites roamed black neighborhoods terrorizing residents. There were confrontations and deaths on both sides. Turner escaped unharmed, but he undoubtedly never forgot the event. The situation was somewhat improved when he received a scholarship and attended school full-time for the academic year 1924-25, which allowed him to graduate in 1926.
As he pursued his education and built a career in academia, Turner and Geneva decided to marry in 1919. She taught in the segregated school system in Washington, DC, and improved her education by taking private French lessons and music classes with famous Howard professor Roy Tibbs.
Turner completed his dissertation in the summer of 1926 at the same time that he lost his father in what was ostensibly a drowning accident in Rock Creek, Washington, DC. Most likely, it had been a suicide since Rooks Turner had suffered severe setbacks later in life. He had lost a leg to diabetes, and the manuscript of his autobiography, his life’s most cherished work, had been lost in a house fire.
Professor Lorenzo Dow Turner
Amid this turmoil, Turner defended his dissertation and became one of the first forty African Americans to obtain a doctorate. Turner’s dissertation, ’Anti- Sentiment in American Literature Prior to 1865,’ had all the hallmarks of his later work on Gullah. It included systematic analysis, methodical organization, and comprehensive coverage of the topic. It became his first published work in 1930. It was used by libraries, into the 21st century, to measure the coverage of their collections on this topic for that period.
As a Howard professor, Turner claimed he was treated badly by some college presidents he had to work with. Although he was discreet and did not mention any names, it is most likely that he was talking about Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson, the first African American president of Howard University. Under Johnson’s iron rule, Howard University went through a tumultuous time in the late 1920s. Some of the best talent at the time left the faculty in disagreement with Johnson’s efforts to silence criticism or any form. Alain Locke, professor of philosophy; Metz Lochard, professor of French; and Alonzo H. Brown, professor of mathematics, left between 1926 and 1927. William Henry Jones, professor of sociology, and M. Franklin Peters and Lorenzo Dow Turner, professors of English, left between 1928 and 1929. Jones, Peters, and Turner had been accused, without foundation, of exchanging grades for kisses from the female students. Turner left the school with the full support of the student body, which at one point threatened to strike in support of the professors. Despite this setback, the most productive and most important part of his career was still ahead.
Out of academic life, Turner decided to try his hand at publishing a newspaper. Naming it The Washington Sun, he and his brother Arthur, who served as business manager, wanted to publish a ’fearless, independent newspaper’ which would primarily ’stimulate a wider and keener local interest in education, religion, and business ... and ... promote the civic welfare of the community.’ (Wade-Lewis 2007: 55) The initial capital was $2,000, and the brothers kept very meticulous ledgers accounting for income and expenses. The weekly publication was an excellent piece and strived to practice the exhortation contained in its slogan: ’To Serve All The People All The Time.’ Despite all their efforts, the newspaper did not succeed. Its first issue came out on September 6, 1928, and by January of the next year, it went out of print.
As the newspaper venture came to an end, Turner’s mind went back to academia, and he applied for a summer position and was accepted at South Carolina State College at Orangeburg (now South Carolina State University.) There Turner heard two of his students speaking an unfamiliar language. He had the opportunity to visit their homes on John’s Island on the coast and concluded that the language that they and their neighbors spoke was not ’bad English’ or ’baby talk,’ as most scholars had believed. Turner was sure it was a distinctive language with a different cadence than the English spoken by African Americans in the South and containing words that he could not understand. These first encounters with Gullah speakers put Turner on the path of the seminal research that defined his career.
By the fall semester of 1929, Turner was again in academia, this time as a professor at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Fisk, along with Howard, was one of the best African American universities in the United States. Famous African American intellectuals, such as John Hope Franklin and Frank Yerby, were trained there and were taught by Turner and a cadre of other excellent professors.
Initially, Turner was hired to replace Sterling Brown, the famous African American writer and poet, who had taken a leave of absence to pursue his graduate studies. Once Brown decided to move to Howard University to teach, Turner was given the position permanently in 1930. Fisk was a good fit for Turner. It provided a nurturing environment, and the university’s president, Dr. Thomas E. Jones, was very supportive of his career. The only problem was that Turner was separated from his mother and Geneva, who continued to reside in Washington, DC. The scourge of segregation was the only darkness in all the bright lights of his sixteen years at Fisk, as far as Turner was concerned. He once stated that ’One of the very serious handicaps of having to go South to teach was that of the segregation policy it [was] embarrassing every time … [I left] the campus …’. (Axford 1981: 133)
Another serious problem was the lack of access to good research facilities. Years later, Turner remembered how he had to travel north to Chicago and New York to research in well-stocked libraries. The best library in Nashville, the one at Vanderbilt University, did not allow him entrance because of his race. The research he undertook in these trips north was published in his new book in collaboration with Otelia Cromwell and Eva Dykes, Readings from Negro Authors: For Schools and Colleges, 1931. The book provided resources for high school and college teachers to teach African American literature. It was comprehensive as it included pieces from pioneers such as Phillis Wheatley and rising stars such as Zora Neale Hurston. Today the volume could still serve as a valuable compendium of African American literature covering the period from the 1760s to the 1930s.
The Turner Family, August 25, 1961. From left to right Lorenzo, Jr., Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner, Lois Turner, and Rani Meredith.
Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Lois Turner Williams.
During his tenure at Fisk, Turner had the distinction in 1943 of participating in the establishment of the first African Studies program in the United States. Later on, Northwestern University established its African Studies program in 1948, and Howard University granted the first bachelor’s and master’s degrees in African Studies in 1954. But in 1943, Turner and his colleagues foresaw the end of colonialism and established a program of studies that looked towards a time when African Americans and Africans would collaborate in the process of building a new, free Africa. The program attracted a number of African students to Fisk, including two who served as language informants to Turner: Fatima Massaquoi, who worked with the Vai language, and Ebenezer Ako-Adjei, who worked with Gã. Massaquoi became a famous educator in Liberia, and Ako-Adjei served as Minister of Interior and Minister of Foreign Affairs in Ghana after independence.
It was also during Turner’s time at Fisk that his personal life undertook significant changes. His mother died in 1931. Turner would remember her as being an excellent mother. His marriage to Geneva succumbed to the stresses of a long-distance relationship. Shortly after their divorce, he married Lois Morton in 1938. He had met her as a graduate student at Fisk. They had two sons, Lorenzo Jr. and Rani Meredith.
Turner stayed at Fisk University until 1946 when he accepted an appointment at Roosevelt College in Chicago. Turner was the first African American professor to receive an appointment to a white institution, but Roosevelt was not the average mainstream white college. It had been founded in 1945 as a democratic haven where discrimination because of race or religion would not exist. Its creation was a revolutionary proposition in 1945 long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Its first president, Dr. Edward J. Sparling, had resigned from Chicago’s Central YMCA College because of its discriminatory practices and taken with him almost 80 percent of the faculty. At Roosevelt, students were all ’an animated crazy quilt, all pieces of which are woven into the same material, with only the colors different.’  A Chicago Defender editorial on May 25, 1946, stated: ’The appointment of Dr. Lorenzo D. Turner to the faculty of the newly organized Roosevelt College in Chicago is without a doubt one of the most encouraging signs on the academic horizon.’
For Turner, there was also an element of nostalgia mingled with a sentiment of triumph in coming to teach at Roosevelt, which was installed in the historic Auditorium Building facing the expansive views of Grant Park and Lake Michigan.
Turner had worked there in the summer of 1913 as a waiter in the tenth-floor restaurant of the Auditorium Hotel which now was Roosevelt’s Library. Turner confessed that as he looked out of the windows at the gorgeous view, he often remembered the time he waited tables located in the space where now he strolled in as a respected professor. The circle had been completed.
Turner stayed at Roosevelt College, later Roosevelt University, until the end of his academic career. In 1966 he had to retire due to age, but he remained at the university as a professor emeritus until 1970, when he left because of poor health.
Gullah Studies, the Beginning: 1930-1935
Turner’s interest in linguistics was long-standing. When he began searching for a subject for his doctoral dissertation in the mid-1920s, he briefly considered studying the speech of persons who had been enslaved, particularly, as he stated, ’those whose speech is very old-fashioned.’ The project did not succeed because of the difficulties in obtaining adequate recording equipment at the time.
Yet, Turner’s exposure to Gullah speakers in South Carolina in 1929 sparked his interest again to undertake that research. He decided to pursue training in linguistics, which would prepare him to do the task. In the summer of 1930, he attended an institute run by the Linguistic Society of America. This connection led to an invitation to work for the Linguistic Atlas of the United States Project, which intended to map the dialects spoken in the United States. This, in turn, led to his seminal work on Gullah and its African connections. By 1931 Turner had become the first African American member of the Linguistic Society of America. In 1932 he was awarded a grant by the American Council of Learned Societies to begin his research on Gullah. Thus, with his acquired knowledge of the International Phonetic Association transcription system, a questionnaire from the Linguistic Atlas project, and a recording device, Turner was ready to begin his Gullah research.
In our time of micro recording devices that can be held inconspicuously in a pocket, the recording machine that Turner obtained, a Fairchild recorder manufactured by the Recording Instrument Division of the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation, and can easily be described as a behemoth. It weighed more than one hundred pounds and consisted of a disc-cutting device that slowly moved a cutting stylus onto the surface of an aluminum disc covered in acetate, producing very precise spiral grooves. It was a record player in reverse. It produced sound recordings that could then be replayed on a phonograph. The equipment, which had been acquired by the American Council of Learned Societies for Turner’s use, and, according to him, was only the third to be produced in the United States, was shipped by train to Charleston, South Carolina, where Turner was staying. It came with a twenty-page detailed manual on how to operate it.
Turner 100-pound recording machine, Fairchild Recording Instrument, Fairchild Aerial Camera Corporation, ca. 1932.It was transported to the different locations where electricity was available, and the recordings were being made.
Courtesy Lorenzo Dow Turner Collection, Africana Manuscripts, Melville J. Herskovits Library, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
The weight and the cumbersome operation of the device were not the only problems facing Turner. Reaching the Sea Islands was an adventure in itself. Turner had to rely on the tides to take him back and forth. Sometimes the rowboat in which he sat could not reach the shore, and he had to wade in. Most of the time, there was no electricity at the locations where Turner was interviewing his informants. He had to ferry them to the mainland, where the recording machine could be connected to electricity. Consequently, most of the interviews were made in Charleston, Beaufort, Savannah, and Brunswick.
Turner elicited the trust of his interviewees first because he was an African American, as they were, and second because of his courteous and engaging manner, which included the gifting of tobacco, groceries, and sometimes small amounts of money. His subjects were so delighted to hear themselves once the discs were recorded and played back that Turner had no trouble at all in gathering the information he wanted.
Despite all the technical difficulties, Turner made recordings that have defied the distance of time and have reached us today to bring the voices, the music, and the reminiscences of Gullah speakers. It was Turner’s first journey into one of the worlds of the African Diaspora and his first exposure to African survivals in the United States.
During his sojourn among the Gullah, one song recorded by Turner indeed defied both distance and time and, in the 1990s, made the roundtrip back to Africa. Sometime in the late 18th century, a Mende woman was captured in Sierra Leone today and transported to the Sea Islands in Georgia and sold into enslavement. She bought with her a song which she had heard numerous times when a funeral was taking place. The destructiveness of enslavement did not erase the song from her memory. She transmitted it to her daughter, for among the Mende, the women were the guardians of funeral traditions. In time the meaning of the song’s words was lost, and it became a playful jingle that mothers sang to their children. Thus, Catherine, an enslaved woman, learned the song and passed it on to her daughter Tawba, who, in turn, passed it to Amelia Dawley, who then taught to her daughter Mary Moran. 
Amelia Dawley of Harris Neck, Georgia, sang the song to Turner in the summer of 1933. Turner did not know at the time the meaning of the song. It would be several years until he obtained a translation from Solomon Caulker, a Mende minister who studied in the United States from 1937 to 1946, including a period at the University of Chicago in 1944-45. Turner often contacted African students in the United States to translate the materials he had collected among the Gullah and later in Brazil and Africa.
As the song was being transferred from generation to generation in Georgia, the same was happening in a Mende family in Sierra Leone. Even though Christian and Muslim traditions replaced the Mende funeral traditions during the 20th century, Marianna of the village of Senehun Ngola continued singing the funeral song. She insisted that her granddaughter Baindu Jabati learn to sing it because ’some time in the future, if people who can sing it come back here to our village, you will know they are your own family.’ 
In the 1990s, anthropologist Joseph Opala discovered the song among the many Turner recordings held at the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University. Subsequently, Opala, ethnomusicologist Cynthia Schmidt, and linguist Tazieff Koroma arranged to bring Mary Moran to Sierra Leone. So it was that 200 years after the song had left Africa it made its way back, and Baindu Jabati could identify its singer, Mary Moran, as a long lost relative. Together the two women could sing the song and mingle their tears of joy. An elderly man of the village summed up the momentous occasion by quoting an ancient proverb: ’You can identify a person’s tribe by the language they cry in.’ (Amos 2019:216)
Turner first began presenting the fruits of his Gullah research in December of 1932. During the Christmas break, he delivered a lecture at the New York Public Library’s Harlem branch on 135th Street (which later became the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture). On December 31, he made a presentation to his peers at the annual meeting of the American Dialectic Society at Yale University. In the Yale presentation, Turner described Gullah for the first time as a distinctive dialect and effectively made use of his recordings to point out aspects of its tone, syntax, and morphology. He did not raise the possibility of African influence in Gullah at this meeting, probably because he was unable to present corroborating evidence.
Geneva Turner accompanied her husband in the early years of his work in the Sea Islands and assisted him in making the recordings. Although her contributions went without acknowledgment in later years, she was the one who served as her ’husband’s associate and scribe’  in his first years doing Gullah research. To prepare for that role, she learned phonetics in the evenings while teaching school during the day in Washington, DC, and attended classes in international phonetics at Brown University.
Cracking the Gullah Code by Studying African Languages and Arabic: 1936‑1938
As Turner immersed himself in the Gullah culture, he knew that the old theories about Gullah were wrong. What he found were grammatical constructions and words that had nothing to do with English and that he believed were of African origin. After all, if dialects such as the Pennsylvania Dutch, based on German, and the Louisiana Creole, based on French, had survived in America, why not believe that Gullah could be a dialect linked to African languages? To prove his point, Turner decided to study African languages.
To pursue this next step, Turner applied and was accepted to study phonetics and West African languages at the School of Oriental Studies, later School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London, which was the premier center for the study of African languages. Turner arrived in London in early October 1936, and shortly after that began his studies under the guidance of Professor Ida C. Ward, a noted British linguist specializing in West African languages. As Turner concentrated on studying Ewe, Efik, Gã, Twi, and Yoruba, he began to understand some of the unusual linguistic features he had observed in Gullah. The cracking of the Gullah code had begun. At a time when few dictionaries and grammars of African languages existed, Turner had to be resourceful and creative in how to continue his studies and his research.
After almost a year of study in London, he found another opportunity to research at the Exposition Internationale in Paris in the summer of 1937. Turner contacted Professor Henri Labouret, a noted French Africanist and the honorary governor of French colonies in Africa, and a professor at the École Coloniale and director of the International Institute of African Languages. Labouret arranged for Turner to have a tent office on the grounds of the exposition where Turner settled himself with the Gullah recordings, he had brought with him, and a phonograph. Labouret began to direct any African visitors that came to the exposition to visit Turner. Once the visitors arrived at the door of his tent, Turner played for them the recordings he had made in the Sea Islands, hoping that they would recognize some of the words and could give him information about the structure of the languages. He was primarily interested in Ewe, Fongbe, Bambara, and Wolof, African languages spoken in the French African colonies, whence most the visitors originated. This way, he gathered more information that confirmed his hypothesis of African survivals in Gullah.
Turner must have commented to Labouret that some of his Gullah informants had Muslim ancestors. Labouret then suggested that Turner should learn Arabic to be able to identify other African survivals in Gullah. His studies led Turner to study Arabic at Yale University in 1938 and to one of his most interesting linguistic findings. While at Yale Turner tried to produce, but did not complete, a translation of the so-called ’Bilali Diary.’ This was a document in Arabic compiled by Muslim enslaved man, Bilali Mohamed, which would become a seminal document in the history of Muslims enslaved in the United States. The ’Bilali Diary’ is held today at the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia.
Bilali Mohamed was originally from Timbo in Fouta Djallon, now located in the West African country of Guinea. At the time that Bialali was captured into enslavement, Fouta Djallon was ravaged by a civil war that lasted from 1725 to the end of the century. Those unfortunate enough to be captured by the opposing faction were sold into enslavement. Capture during a war, was probably what happened to Bilali, who was taken to the Caribbean and later sold to Thomas Spalding, who brought him to his plantation on Sapelo Island, Georgia, in 1802.  Katie Brown of Sapelo Island, a descendant of Bilali, gave information to Turner in the early 1930s. 
Connecting Communities through Language and Finding Africa in Brazil: 1940-1941
As Turner continued to explore the African survivals in Gullah, he was attracted to Brazil. He knew that a much larger number of Africans had been brought to enslavement in Brazil than to the United States and that many of the West African languages that had influenced Gullah were the same ones that these enslaved Africans had brought to Brazil. Better yet, Turner also knew that Afro-Brazilians in the Northeast area of the country, especially in Bahia, had been able to retain many of their religious practices, oral literature, and musical heritage. He believed that researching these survivals would be useful for him to build a complete picture of how African languages had influenced Gullah. With the support of Melville J. Herskovits, the most prestigious Africanist in the United States at the time, Turner obtained a grant and left to research in Brazil in June of 1940.
Turner’s first stop was in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of the country and its principal intellectual center. There he tried, with mixed results at first, to learn Portuguese. The Linguaphone set he had brought with him – the language learning device of the time – had not been as useful as he thought it would be because it contained lessons in European Portuguese, a quite different language from the Portuguese spoken in Brazil.
Always a serious and conscientious student, Turner poured himself into the task of learning this new language as one of his notebooks, with neat rows of conjugated verbs, attests. He probably quickly overcame his early troubles because by the end of July, a little over a month after his arrival, he reported that Turner could ask for anything he needed. However, he sometimes did not understand what was said to him.
While Turner was in Rio, E. Franklin Frazier, a noted African American sociologist based at Howard University, arrived in Brazil, accompanied by his wife Marie, to research the structure of the Afro-Brazilian family. Both men were treated as celebrities. Newspapers interviewed them with front-page coverage as they explained their interest in studying the rich Afro-Brazilian culture. In Rio, Turner met with Brazilian intellectuals and recorded Mário de Andrade – who was one of the most important of Brazilian intellectuals of the twentieth century – speaking and singing with friends.
In early October, Turner and the Fraziers embarked on a boat for Salvador, Bahia. In Bahia, they were also treated as celebrities. They were interviewed on the deck of the ship by the local media, even before disembarking. Turner was invited right away to attend a ceremony at the School of Medicine, where Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas received an honorary degree.
Salvador presented Turner with fertile ground for his research. This most African of Brazilian cities had received the majority of the Africans who had been enslaved in Brazil. Furthermore, its population of African descent had been able to maintain close relations with West Africa, as ships plied the waters between the two coasts, taking people, goods, and news to and fro well into the 20th century. Turner had found Africa in Brazil.
He was particularly taken by Candomblé, the Afro Brazilian religion brought from West Africa by the enslaved Africans. He was admitted to its houses of worship, or terreiros, where Afro Brazilians worship the gods that had crossed the Atlantic. Turner worked with approximately 60 persons and recorded hundreds of hours of ritual songs, life stories, and African folktales that had been transported to and nurtured in Brazil. These recordings in Yoruba, Fongbe, Kimbundu, and Kikongo are a vivid record of how these African languages were in current use in Bahia at the time. During his research, Turner played back to the people of Candomblé, the recordings he had made in the Sea Islands, and they recognized some of the very words they used in their rituals and songs. This was the same technique he had used in Paris during his research with the visitors to the Exposition Internationale. Yet, as I was to discover decades later, he used another creative research technique in Bahia. Using a Fongbe dictionary published in 1894 – Manuel Dahoméen by Maurice Delafosse – Turner interviewed Fongbe speakers by finding words they might have used in their ceremonies and taking notes on the dictionary pages.
Turner researched at the Terreiro do Bogum (Zoogodô Bogum Malê Rundó) and photographed two of the women who were leaders of that house of worship. He identified them as daughters of parents who had come from Dahomey (today Benin) and who spoke Fongbe fluently.
Turner was particularly interested in the close connection that individual Afro-Brazilians had enjoyed with West Africa. He interviewed individuals who had lived in Africa and now lived in Bahia and others whose families were split on the two margins of the Atlantic. This connection provided the constant source of linguistic and cultural replenishment for Afro-Brazilian culture and allowed it to thrive.
One of those Turner interviewed was Martiniano Eliseu do Bomfim, who celebrated his 81st birthday while being interviewed. Martiniano had spent several years, while a teenager and young man, in Lagos, Nigeria. There, he studied at a missionary school where he learned English. During the years he stayed in Lagos, Martiniano was introduced to the Yoruba language and religious traditions. After leaving school, Martiniano went on to learn the construction trade from members of the Afro-Brazilian returnee community, while building the city’s new Catholic church. On returning to Brazil, Martiniano became a religious leader within the Afro-Brazilian community in Salvador, Bahia. He was also at various periods of his life a private teacher of the English language, as well as a wall painter.
In 2012, I collaborated with Dr. Felix Ayoh’Omidire of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria, in writing an article published in the journal Afro-Asia telling the history of Martiniano’s life as he had dictated it to Turner, in Yoruba. The interviews took place between October 12 and December 9, 1940. I had located a transcription of these interviews at the Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Africana Manuscripts, Melville J. Herskovits Library, Northwestern University while researching for the exhibit. In this case, Turner knew that Martiniano was telling the history of his life in Yoruba since he also told part of it in English, a language he spoke very well. Nevertheless, it was not until several years later that Turner had the full transcription from Yoruba. The transcriber, most likely a Nigerian student living at the Turner household free of charge in exchange for his services as a translator, used a phonetic system to copy the content of the interviews and also provided a translation into English. Martiniano shared his interviews with a close friend, Ana dos Santos, born in Lagos of Brazilian parents. The family returned to Brazil in 1908. Ana was also fluent in Yoruba, English, and Portuguese. 
I delved again into Turner’s research in Salvador, Bahia, in 2015. While visiting for the opening of my exhibit, ’Gullah Bahia África,’ the Portuguese version of ’Word Shout Song,’ I was able to go to the Terreiro do Gantois (Ilê Iyá Omin Axé Iyá Massê), where he researched in the early 1940s. The main reason for the visit was to investigate some of the photographs that Turner had taken at the terreiro, in particular one where Mãe Menininha (Maria Escolástica da Conceição Nazaré), the Iyalorixá at the time, was seen surrounded by her female followers. To my surprise, Mãe Carmen (Carmen da Conceição Nazaré de Olveira), daughter of Mãe Menininha and present-day Iyalorixá of the Gantois, immediately identified herself and the others in the photograph. She had been a teenager at the time of Turner’s visit, but she remembered the event well.
Turner was interested in the popular celebrations that took place while he was in Salvador, Bahia. He photographed and most likely participated in the Lavagem do Bonfim festival and Carnaval (Carnival) in 1941. Lavagem do Bonfim (The Washing of Bonfim) takes place on the second Thursday of the year. In 1941 the celebration was on January 9. On that occasion, thousands of persons, mostly clad in white, walk about 5 miles, from the Igreja (church) da Nossa Senhora da Conceição da Praia to Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. The baianas – women dressed in traditional outfits – lead the procession carrying quartinhas (vases) containing scented water, which they will use to wash the Bonfim Church’s stairs. The ceremony is a mixture of Candomblé celebration and Christian beliefs.
Mãe Menininha and her followers. Photo taken by Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner at the Terreiro do Gantois, 1940-41. From left to right standing Hilda of Oxum, Celina of Oxalufan, Carmen daughter of Mãe Menininha and present day Iyalorixá of the Gantois, Mãe Menininha, Cleusa oldest daughter of Mãe Menininha and her successor, America of Obaluayê. Kneeling Floripedes of Oxossi and Titia Amor of Obaluayê.
Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Lois Turner Williams (acma_PH2002,7064.147).
Yet, Turner also had a keen eye for the everyday scenes he saw while walking around the streets with his photographic camera on hand. There are several such photos in his collection.
Turner left Bahia in April of 1941 and did more research in Pernambuco further up the Northeast coast of Brazil. In July, he was back in the United States with an array of musical instruments, Candomblé vestments, beautiful photographs, and a sense that Afro-Brazilians were well aware that their African ancestors had given to Brazil its best in music, art, and dance.
He tried, unsuccessfully, to publish the materials he had collected in Brazil. Eventually, most of the recordings were donated to the Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University, where they remained mostly untouched. Prof. Xavier Vatin, from the Universidade Federal do Recôncavo da Bahia, has recently published a selection of Turner’s interviews and songs recorded in Bahia with commentaries. The publication includes recordings from the Archives of Traditional Music and photographs from the Turner papers at the Anacostia Community Museum Archives of the Smithsonian Institution. 
Publishing Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect and Finally Going to Africa: 1949-1951
In a letter dated April 9, 1945, Turner indicated that the manuscript that would later become his seminal book Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect was ready for publication and only waiting for final revision and a typist who could handle the typing of the special characters included in it. As always, Turner’s work was impeccable. He had been careful, had devoted years to research, and had spent many more making sure that the text met the very best technical standards. In the preface of the book, Turner stated, ’the present study is the result of an investigation that extended over a period of fifteen years.’ (1949: 216)
His work was momentous, more than a meticulous and technical flawless text. By identifying words in Gullah derived from more than thirty African languages from the Niger-Congo family, Turner had proved that enslavement had not completely obliterated Africa’s memory in its victims. His text was one of the first steps in the movement that would eventually create the field of African American studies.
When the University of Chicago Press published Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in 1949, almost nothing had been written about creole languages, that is, languages that develop from the simplifying and mixing of several languages. Consequently, Turner did not have access to a complete picture of what a creole language was and could not expand on the theory of the subject. Yet his work pioneered the field of Creole Studies and helped propel it. He even correctly envisioned that the future of Creole Studies was in the comparisons of different creole languages based on various European languages to determine the commonality of many of their structures. His work laid the foundation that inspired Creole Studies in the 1970s, 1980s, and beyond.
Turner’s work also provided incentives for further study of the African influences in English. In the 1970s, Turner’s findings were cited as proof that Black English or ’Ebonics’ was a distinctive language from everyday colloquial American English. Furthermore, linguists, inspired by his findings, launched into the task of finding Africanisms in American English in general. To no surprise, they found that many words currently used in everyday English come from African languages.
After its first edition, Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect elicited some controversy. It was well-received by many academics but more skeptically by others. The fact that it has withstood the test of time attests to its importance. It had two more editions, one by the University of Michigan Press in 1974 and the other by the University of South Carolina Press in 2002. It is a standard reference work for creolists – linguists who study creole languages – to this day.
After his breakthrough research in the Sea Islands and the exciting discovery of Africa in Brazil, Turner’s eyes turned to the real prize: Africa. Finally, in 1951, he achieved his dream of visiting Africa after receiving a Fulbright award. His visit to West Africa was a major adventure of interacting with the local people, presenting lectures, and again recording songs, folktales, and proverbs. Turner was initially located at the University College of Ibadan, Nigeria, where he lectured to appreciative audiences on topics such as Africans in the New World and the English language in the United States. Soon after his arrival, he was extending his reach and traveling all over the country. During these excursions, he often played the recordings he had made in Brazil with Yoruba speakers. His Yoruba speaking audiences in Africa were fascinated. He was further connecting the worlds of the African Diaspora through language.
Recording without electricity. In Africa, Turner again found himself doing his work without the benefit of access to electricity. In this photo, he is seen preparing his recorder in a dark room and surrounded by curious children.
Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Lois Turner Williams.
Always the independent sort, after relying on transportation provided by others, Turner bought a light truck for his travels. Before he left Africa, he had put 20,000 miles on the odometer, and the truck’s tires were threadbare. Some of the adventures Turner had in Africa were outright funny, others somewhat dangerous. By experience, Turner soon learned that the local bridges were closed at 6 pm when the bridge guard’s shift ended. If he arrived at a bridge after that time, he could count on sleeping in the truck and taking turns with whoever was his guide in keeping watch with a shotgun on hand to keep wild animals at bay. On another occasion, Turner was presenting a lecture at a mission school when someone announced, ’Elephants are coming!’ His audience immediately bolted for the door, and the talk never finished.
After traveling extensively throughout Nigeria, Turner briefly visited to Dahomey (today Benin), Togoland (today Togo), and the Gold Coast (today Ghana.) He then moved to Sierra Leone, where he researched Krio. He also made many recordings that would further his knowledge of Creole languages and his later work in teaching Mende and Krio to Peace Corps volunteers bound for Sierra Leone.
Bringing Africa to the United States: A Final Journey, 1951-1972
Back in the United States, Turner had a new store of knowledge regarding the connections between African, Afro-Brazilian, and African American cultures. He had brought with him from Africa more than 8,000 proverbs, 1,600 folktales, and hundreds of hours of recordings, in addition to musical instruments and art items. He was also eager to begin the last journey: to bring knowledge of Africa to the United States.
After returning from Africa in 1951, Turner took every opportunity to present his eyewitness view of Africa to diverse audiences. From his students at Roosevelt University to the members of the B’nai Torah Temple of Highland Park (a Chicago suburb) to the congregation at inner-city Ebenezer Baptist Church, those attending his lectures were unanimous in rating them as highly successful and entertaining. Turner highlighted his presentations with his recordings, photographs and slides, and vivid narrative, all in the true style of a griot – the traditional West African storyteller – imparting knowledge and entertainment.
Although his primary focus had always been on words, Turner was also very interested in music. He was particularly fascinated by drums since they set the tone in African music. Turner always mentioned that drums in Africa could speak, and his ’talking drum’ was always a favorite item in his lectures. The talking drum is an hourglass-shaped pressure drum that can closely imitate the rhythms and intonations of spoken language. The drum’s heads – at either end of its body – are made of animal hide, fish skin, or another membrane wrapped around the drum’s wooden hoop. Leather cords or thongs run the length of the drum’s body and are bound around both hoops. When the drum is placed under one’s arm, the cords are squeezed, the head tightens, and the drum’s pitch then changes, imitating the sounds of a language. The talking drum is called dundun in Yoruba.
Skilled drummers, called onigangan in Yoruba, can closely imitate the sounds of African tonal languages and reproduce the sounds of proverbs and praise songs. Yoruba audiences can easily understand this drum language. The use of talking drums was forbidden in the United States during the era of enslavement because of its ability to ’speak’ in an unknown language and its potential to incite rebellion. 
Turner’s expertise with words and his knowledge of Africa and African languages came together in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The world was fundamentally changing then. Colonialism in Africa and other parts of the developing world was fast disappearing. In the United States, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements had brought to the fore the plight of African Americans as well as an interest in African American culture. There was a need for new dictionaries that reflected these changes and gave due credit to the influence of African languages in English. Turner was the person to meet this need for information. He was hired by Funk and Wagnalls to serve on the editorial board of the New Practical Standard Dictionary and as a consultant on African languages for Webster’s New World Dictionary.
Unfortunately, as was the case with the material Turner collected in Brazil, he was never able to publish the voluminous material collected in Africa. At the end of his life, he participated in a project that would fulfill some of this desire. Turner collaborated on a project with the Encyclopedia Britannica Educational Corporation to produce a series of filmstrips for students from kindergarten to sixth grade. Poignantly, the folktales from Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, and Dahomey were published only after his death. But they were received well by the critics who expected them to be excellent tools to teach language arts and to help elementary school students acquire more familiarity with Africa. Turner would have been glad to know that his work had reached children of all races in the United States and imparted to them the knowledge and wisdom he had brought from Africa.
Lorenzo Dow Turner departed this life on February 10, 1972. His death notice in the Chicago Daily Defender said it all: ’Death has removed from the scene one of America’s truly great linguistic scholars of our time.’ Today, although his research remains to be thoroughly used by anthropologists, it can be classified as an important resource for linguistic anthropology. In his fieldwork, Turner also used anthropological and ethnographic techniques, which could serve as examples for scholars working in interpreting language and culture.
Four institutions hold Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner papers and recordings. Here are the collections’ finding aids:
Dow Turner Collection, Archives of Traditional Music, Indiana University
Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, 1906 – 1985, Amistad Research Center, Tulane University
Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Africana Manuscripts, Melville J. Herskovits Library, Northwestern University
Lorenzo Dow Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Related Archival Material
The collections of papers of Turner’s first wife Geneva Townes Turner and his co-researcher in Brazil, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier, also contain material of interest for scholars:
E. Franklin Frazier Papers, Collection 131-1 to 131-147, The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University
Geneva Townes Turner Papers, Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution
Geneva Townes Turner Papers, Collection 212-1 to 212-3, The Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University
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Amos, Alcione M., guest editor. ’The Living Legacy of Lorenzo Dow Turner.’ The Black Scholar, vol. 41, no. 1, 2011, doi:10.1080/00064246.2011.11413536.
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’Colorful Dialect is Saved from Oblivion: Young Couple in Providence has Recorded Picturesque Tongue of Islanders off South Carolina Coast.’ Providence Evening Bulletin, August 13, 1934.
Jones, Cornelia Reid Jones. “The Four Rooks Sisters,” Negro History Bulletin vol. 16, no. 1, October 1952, pp. 3-8.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect. University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. ’African Survivals in the New World with Special Emphasis on the Arts’ In Africa from the Point of View of American Negro Scholars. Présence Africaine, 1958, pp. 101-16
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. ’Linguistic Research and African Survivals.’ in The Inter-disciplinary Aspects of Negro Studies, ed. Melville J. Herskovits, special issue, American Council of Learned Societies Bulletin, vol. 32, September 1941, pp. 68-89.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. ’The Negro in Brazil.’ Chicago Jewish Forum Vol. 15, no.4, July 1955, pp. 305-17.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. ’Notes on the Sounds and Vocabulary of Gullah.’ Publications of the American Dialect Society, vol. 9, November 1948, pp.74-84.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. ’The Role of Folklore in the Life of the Yoruba of South-western Nigeria.’ in Report of the Ninth Annual Round Table Meeting on Linguistics and Language Study, ed. William M. Austin, Washington, DC: Institute of Languages and Linguistics, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, 1958, pp. 101-16.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. ’Roosevelt College: Democratic Haven,’ Opportunity 25 (October 1947):223-25.
Turner, Lorenzo Dow. ’Some Contacts of Brazilian Ex-Slaves with Nigeria, West Africa.’ Journal of Negro History, vol. 27, no.1, January 1942, pp. 55-67.
Wade-Lewis, Margaret. Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies. University of South Carolina Press, 2007.