Lorenzo Dow Turner

Lorenzo Dow Turner papers, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Lois Turner Williams.

African American, Linguistics, Ethnography

Lorenzo Dow Turner


Dr. Lorenzo Dow Turner was a groundbreaking scholar who transformed paradigms for studying African American cultures by linking Gullah language and cultures to African languages and cultures. He co-founded the first African Studies department in the US and initiated the fields of Creole and African Diaspora Studies. 

Born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina to Elizabeth Sessions Turner, he was the youngest of four children in a family already in their fourth generation of freedom. His father, Rooks Turner, was an educator who held both an AB (1877) and an MA (1900) from Howard University.  Lorenzo Turner continued the family tradition of educational excellence by graduating with an AB in English from Howard University (1914) and earning an MA in English from Harvard College (1917), while also working to pay for his education. Upon obtaining his MA, Howard University hired Turner to teach English, and Zora Neale Hurston was among his students. From 1919 to 1926, while continuing to teach, work as a waiter, and support his mother, Turner pursued his PhD in English at the University of Chicago. In 1926, he was among the first 40 African Americans to obtain a doctorate. 

During summer 1929, while teaching at South Carolina State College, Dr. Turner heard Black students speaking a distinctive language that differed from the language of the Southern African Americans around whom he was raised. Turner’s introduction to Gullah/Geechee language and culture launched his linguistic career and his work investigating the African roots of Gullah language. From 1929 to 1946, Turner joined and chaired the English Department at Fisk University. While working there, he attended the Linguistics Society of America Institute to pursue training in linguistics (1930) and conducted fieldwork in the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands, often assisted by first wife, Geneva Townes Turner (1931-1935). He held a research fellowship at Yale (1938-1939), where he studied Arabic to understand Muslim influences on Gullah. He also researched linguistics, history, and folklore in Brazil with Afro-Brazilians (1940-1941); participated in the establishment of African Studies at Fisk (1943); and established a correspondence with his contemporary and friend, Melville Herskovits, whom he influenced.   

In 1946, as the first African American professor to receive an appointment to a white institution, Turner left Fisk for Roosevelt College in Chicago to serve as Chair of the African Studies Program, where he remained until the end of his academic career in 1970. Between 1951 and 1960, Dr. Turner conducted extensive research on the folklore, music, and languages of British and French West Africa and served as visiting lecturer at University of Ibadan in Nigeria. 

Among his outstanding books and articles of interest to folklore studies are:

Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect (1949)

An Anthology of Krio Folklore and Literature (1963)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)