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Turner wanted to attend Catholic University of America, but it

was segregated at the time and he was not granted admittance



Thomas Wyatt Turner (1877-1978)

Biologist, Educator, and Catholic Activist; Professor


Born March 16, 1877 (Hughsville, Maryland), Thomas Wyatt Turner, one of nine children, was the son of Eli and Linnie Gross Turner, both former slaves. His father, until his death, was a sharecropper. He died when Thomas was eight years old. Thomas attended Episcopal local schools in that Catholic schools refused to admit him. He walked fifty miles to attend Howard preparatory school.

Educator, Graduate Study, & Government Service

Thomas received his A.B. from Howard University in 1901, and spent the following year at Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, as teacher of biology. After a year he returned to Maryland as teacher in the Baltimore High School for Negroes (1902-1910), meanwhile continuing his studies for his M.A., which he received from Howard University in 1905. In 1917 Turner married Laura Miller, who died in the 1920s.

After eight years' experience in the Baltimore public high school, Turner taught for a year in the St. Louis High School, but returned to Baltimore in 1911, where he remained for three more years. From 1914 to 1924, he was Professor of Botany at Howard University and also served from 1914 to 1920 as Acting Dean at the Howard's School of Education. During the summer months from 1916 to 1921, Turner studied at Cornell University, where he received in 1921 his Ph.D. in Botany, His dissertation was entitled "Studies of the Mechanism of the Physiological Effects of certain Mineral Salts in Altering the Ratio of Top Growth to Root Growth in Seed Plants." His thesis was eventually published in the American Journal of Botany.

Turner wanted to attend Catholic University of America, but it was segregated at the time and he was not granted admittance. In 1976 Catholic University of America, however, awarded Turner an honorary degree. He was then 99 years old. preparing for his earned doctorate at Cornell, Turner did graduate work at several universities and related institutions. Among them were Johns Hopkins, Columbia, the University of Rochester, and the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Turner was indeed the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Cornell. Elbert Cox, the first black math Ph.D. was the second black to earn a doctorate from Cornell.

While working on his dissertation, Turner worked as cytologist (a cell biologist). During the year 1918, he did special work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Maine, where he examined potato fields. The American government consulted Turner throughout his career about agricultural problems. Under the auspices of the United States Secretary of Agriculture, Turner worked as a collaborator on Virginia's plant diseases.

From 1924 to 1945, Turner was a professor in the Botany Department at Hampton Institute in Virginia and during this period became the head of the department. Forced to retire in 1945 because of glaucoma, Turner held emeritus professor status until his death in 1978. At Hampton, Turner advanced Hampton's natural science curriculum. For his service Hampton in 1977, renamed its science building Turner Hall.

Social Activism & Federated Colored Catholics

Interested in more than a career as educator and researcher, Turner's work, curiously, as an activist, has overshadowed his many scientific accomplishments. A member in the founder (1909) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Turner served as a leader in the Baltimore and Washington branches and was president of the NAACP Phoebus, Virginia, branch. Throughout the 1920s, Turner was active in the black voter registration movement. he was honored with a NAACP life-time membership.

Dr. Turner was active in Catholic organizations and in societies for the advancement of the Negro. He founded in 1925 the Federated Colored Catholics (FCC), an organization, national in scope, composed of catholic Negroes who placed their services at the disposal of the Church for whatever good they were able to effect in the solution of the problems facing the group in Church and country.

FCC's intent was to fight racism and segregation in the Catholic Church and promote racial harmony. Turner was president until 1934. Contrary to his desire, the FCC was forcibly made part of the Catholic Interracial council in 1933. The group lost its focus and power after the mid-1930s, although the organization retained its identity until 1958. Turner, remained a loyal member of the catholic Church. in 1976, the Secretariat of Washington, D.C.'s Black Catholics named its highest award for Turner. the Thomas Wyatt Turner Award has become an annual honor. Turner was also Supreme Color Bearer of the knights of St. John.

Leader of Scientific Societies and Consultant

Turner was also a member of a number of scientific societies, including the American Association for the Advance of Science, the Botany Society of America, and the Virginia Academy of the American Phylopathological Society. In 1931, Turner organized the Virginia Conference of College Science Teachers in 1931, and served as president of that group for two terms. From 1942 through 1943 he studied science teaching at at 32 colleges and produced several papers on the topic.

Turner was the first black man to present a paper to the Virginia Academy of Science, and for many years, he was its only black member south of Philadelphia. Turner was also a founder of The National Institute of Science and the organization's first president. He was also a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Society of Horticultural Science.

After his retirement from Hampton, Turner continued to work in the collegiate science community. He was a consultant at Florida Normal College from 1947-48 and from 1949 to 1950 he worked at Texas Southern University. Turner organized its biology department and served as a consultant to the University's president who was a professor of biology. In addition Turner worked as a speaker on radio programs of the Columbia Broadcasting System.

On April 21, 1978, at the age of 101 in a Washington, D.C., hospital, Turner died. Married in 1936, Turner was survived by Louise Wright, his second wife. Turner had no children.

Writings and Scholarly Articles

Turner wrote for numerous educational, scientific, and religious periodicals. his learned article "Mineral Nutrition of Plants" in the American Journal of Botany is forty pages in length. As president of the Federated Colored Catholics, Turner published frequent messages to its members in The Chronicle and the Interracial Review. His constant plea was the extension of Catholic Negro higher education.

Actual conditions of Catholic education among the colored laymen. Catholic Education Association Bulletin 16:431-440, November 1919.

A plea for more intensive programs of extension of educational facilities for the benefit of colored people of Catholic faith especially in the field of higher education.

Address made at the Detroit convention. Chronicle 3:288-289, December 1930.

Constructive attitude required members of the FCC [Federation of Colored Catholics] for high school and college facilities.

Agricultural education in Negro land grant colleges. Southern Workman 66:188-191, June 1937.

There is a trend toward liberal arts and away from agricultural courses. Study and revision of the curriculum are needed.

Correspondence. Colored Missions 29;90, June 1943

Father Maggiore's efforts to expand the church into the social life of the Negro people in his mission is an example of the trail-blazing activity characteristic of many priests in out-of-the-way places.

Elementary science teaching in Negro schools: a problem. National Education Outlook 1:29-30, September 1937.

The teacher must create the desire to handle things intelligently, leading him on to the opportunity to experiment and later to wide occupational participation in the nation's life.

Letters from the president of the Federation [of Colored Catholics]. T.W. Turner. Chronicle 4:455, 511, 541, 603, June, August-October 1931.

Offering recommendations for the success of the forth-coming convention and for the future success of the organization through the approval and cooperation of church authorities.

Mineral nutrition of plants. American Journal of Botany 9:415-455, October 1922.

Studies of the mechanism of the physiological effects of certain mineral salts in altering the ratio of top growth to root growth in seed plants.

Our Detroit regulations. Chronicle 5:110-111. June 1932

A consideration of the fundamental idea underlying the FCC.

President's annual address, New York, Sept. 2, 1932. Interracial Review 5:204-205, October 1932.

Program of FCC must give more attention to essential matters of economics and social conditions.

Problems of the Negro. Commonweal 14:325-326, July 20, 1935.

In a letter to the editor, Dr. Turner shows the importance of Catholic higher education.

"Science Teaching in Negro Colleges." Journal of Negro Education, 1946.

The social order and the Catholic Negro. Chronicle 4:650-654, November 1931.

The Negro in relation to birth control, native clergy, catholic education, as stated in the Encyclicals.

Some ideals of the biological laboratory. Education 38: 143-156, November 1917.

The ideals mentioned and developed in this long essay are health and physical development, conservation of food supply, social betterment and social uplift, and practical creative ethics. the teacher of biology should be a person of high moral and religious ideals, and breath of character.

Spirit of the Federated Colored Catholics. Chronicle 5: 92 may 1932

Chief aim to contribute our part in the promotion of Catholic Action as a concrete fact in our daily lives.

A visit to Catholic New Orleans. Chronicle 5; 52-53, March 1932

Brief account of the outstanding catholics and catholic enterprises in the city.



Nickels, Marilyn Wenzke. Black Catholic Protest and the Federated Colored Catholics, 1917-33. Garland publishing, 1988.


"Hubert Branch Crouch and the Origins of the National Institute of Science," Journal of Negro History, (Winter 1994): 18-33.

The New York Times. (April 25, 1978)

"NOBC Pioneer Dies in 102nd Year," Impact! (April-May 1978): 2-3.

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Sources: Sister Mary Anthony Scally, R.S.M. Negro Catholic Writers (1900-1943): A Bio-Bibliography (1945).

Notable Black American Scientists. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 2001.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Ancient African Nations

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