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Turner, Lorenzo Dow (1890-1972) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Turner, Lorenzo Dow (1890-1972)


Historical Note:

Lorenzo Dow Turner, African American scholar and linguist is known as the “Father of Gullah Studies.”

Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890-1972) was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on October 21, 1890, the youngest of four sons of Rooks Turner and Elizabeth Freeman. Turner earned a master's degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Chicago. He taught at Howard University from 1917 to 1928, and during his last eight years, he served as Head of the English Department. After leaving Howard, he founded the Washington Sun newspaper, which closed after one year.

From 1929 to 1946, Turner served as Head of the English Department at Fisk University. There he designed the curriculum for the African Studies Program. In 1946, he began teaching at Roosevelt University in Chicago, where he was Chairman of the African Studies Program. In the early 1960s, he co-founded the Peace Corps training program to prepare young volunteers for service in Africa. Turner retired from Roosevelt in 1967.

Turner did seminal research on the Gullah language of the Low Country of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. His study included recordings of Gullah speakers in the 1930s and is best remembered as the father of Gullah studies. His interest in the Gullah people began in 1929 when he first heard Gullah speakers while teaching a summer class at South Carolina State College (now University). Although established scholars then viewed Gullah speech as a form of substandard English, Turner sensed that Gullah was strongly influenced by African languages. He set out to study the language. For the next 20 years, he made trips to the Gullah region in coastal South Carolina and Georgia, interviewing Gullahs and making detailed notes on their language. He also made recordings in the 1930s of Gullah speakers talking about their culture, folk stories and other aspects of life.

As part of his studies, Turner traveled to several locations in Africa, specifically Sierra Leone, to learn about the development of Creole languages, as well as to Louisiana and Brazil, to study Creole and Portuguese, respectively. He did research at University of London School of Oriental and African Studies (on various African language systems). He wanted to be able to provide context for the obvious "Africanisms" he discovered in his Sea Islands research. When Turner finally published his classic work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in 1949, he made an immediate impact on established academic thinking. His study of the origin, development and structure of Gullah was so convincing that scholars quickly accepted his thesis that Gullah is strongly influenced by African languages. He showed the continuity of language and culture across the diaspora. He created a new field of study by his work and an appreciation for a unique element of African-American culture.

In 1951, Turner conducted research in Africa, specifically Nigeria and Benin, as a Fulbright Scholar studying Yoruba languages and dialects, which relate to the Yoruba speakers of northern Brazil. He proved that Gullah and Afro-Brazilian Portuguese were related to the Niger-Congo languages. However, his work among the Yoruba peoples in Africa has not been studied extensively.  The anthropological and ethnographic methodologies Turner used in his work are recognized as having a broader context for the interpretation of language and culture

Turner was strongly influenced by the American linguistic movement, which he joined at its inception. Through his Gullah research, he gave shape to several academic specialties: Gullah studies, dialect geography, and creole linguistics, as well as being an important predecessor to the field of African American studies.

Turner died of heart failure at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, on February 10, 1972

Sources: Wade-Lewis, Margaret. Lorenzo Dow Turner: Father of Gullah Studies. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2007





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