Tour A 9. Augustus Turner and the founding of the Indianapolis Station AME Church

Augustus Turner’s obituary in the Indianapolis News, called him a “man of positive character and devoted himself to higher aims than Negros at that day usually thought themselves worthy to pursue.”  As a testament to his respect in Indianapolis, his funeral in 1880 was packed with both White and Black leaders.[1] More than simply offering his home for early meetings of the church in 1836, he served as a rock for the congregation during the critical process of building a free black community in Indianapolis.  Turner is remembered for his role in the formation of the Indianapolis Station AME Church, but should also be remembered for his steady presence as a class leader for more than 40 years serving as an inspiration for congregants of the success. His incalculable legacy was as a model of Black citizenry to the White men who came for a haircut and shave.

Civil War era barbershop. Image courtsey of chicagobarbersassociation.org

Civil War era barbershop. Image Source: courtesy of The Chicago Barber Association

Augustus Turner was born in 1807, describing himself as a son of free blacks in Kentucky, and coming to Indianapolis in 1833.[2] Turner was a barber by trade, being the second black barber to come to Indianapolis. Barbers held a unique position in early American society, performing an intimate function  with their knives literally at the White man’s throat.  As service work became associated with African Americas, Blacks emerged as the primary barbers in society.[3] Working from “a little frame shop” at his house, Turner was the wealthiest black barber in the state, with $5,000 of property in 1850 and being “quite wealthy” at this death. [4] Turner established relationships with both blacks and whites, even extending his network across the state, as a “court barber” with the Indiana circuit court.[5] Similar to a circuit preacher, these trips across the state would have exposed him to other anti-slavery and AME leaders.[6]

Augustus Turner may have been the only Black man his White clients knew, demonstrating the role that AME church leaders played as role models, within and outside the Black community.[7]  While the Barber Shops were an area of interracial interaction, but the AME Church gained a measure of its success through segregation. The name of the African Methodist Episcopal church, in the words of founder Richard Allen, expressed the importance of “the fact that the church was founded, controlled by and chiefly composed of persons of African descent, with African blood in their veins.”[8] Much like barber shop, the AME Church was at the heart of the Black community, serving as a source of news, political organization, education, moral uplift, social welfare, and domestic advice.[9]

The origins of the Indianapolis Station AME Church can be traced to a meeting a group of African Americans in 1836 to discuss the formation of a church where they would be free to worship “according to the dictates of their conscience.”[10]   A group met in the log cabin home of Augustus Turner on Georgia Street in December 1836, to discuss the possibility of the formation of a church. Turner used an AME Book of Discipline as a guideline for leading his group, which soon became the Indianapolis Station AME Church, the second AME Church in Indiana and the first African American Church in India polis.  Turner group formed independantly, before writing to the church to be annexed to the AME Church, becoming part of the Western Circuit. William Paul Quinn, one of the most successful of ante-bellum AME leaders was sent to Indianapolis to help organize the congregation. In 1836, Quinn was listed as a “traveling preacher,” not only assisting Turner’s group but also establishing a church in Richmond, considered the oldest AME church in Indiana. Quinn was officially appointed as a western missionary in 1840 and organized and oversaw the Indiana Conference, organized in 1844.[11]  Quinn was one of the most successful church organizers; by 1844 he had organized forty-seven churches with a membership of over 2,000.  For this work, he was made a bishop in 1844, serving the West from Richmond, and retained close ties with Indianapolis until his death in 1873.[12] Indianapolis Station grew with the city, despite the hostile racial climate. In 1841, the church bought property on Georgia Street and built a small frame meeting house.[13] At this time, the church probably had itinerant ministers.  These traveling ministers served several congregations, linking together the small African American communities across the state.  In 1848, Indianapolis Station reported at the Indiana Conference meeting that they had 100 members under Rev. Avenues McIntosh. The church offered day and Sunday schools in the church building.

The AME Church grew out of the Free African Society, established by Richard Allen and other free blacks established in Philadelphia in 1787. Limited to preaching to African Americans and forced to sit in the separate gallery, Allen and others left St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. Originally, the Free African Society was a mutual aid society they transformed the organization into an African congregation. With deep ties to the tenants of Methodism, Allen led a small group who formed the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1793. In general, the AME adopted the doctrines and form of government of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The Church struggled to remain independent, successfully suing for the right of his independent congregation to exist in the Pennsylvania courts in 1807 and 1815. Because black Methodists in other middle Atlantic communities also encountered racism and desired religious autonomy, Allen called them to meet in Philadelphia in 1816 to form a new Wesleyan denomination, the “African Methodist Episcopal Church” (AME Church). With its roots in fighting discrimination and racial uplift, it was important in the protest against racial discrimination and slavery.[14] Allen and the Philadelphia Mother Bethel Church Trustees established a free school for adults and children in 1796. To provide the educational materials central to this mission, he started the critical Book Concern in 1817. As the church expanded and grew, the educational actives followed with resources devoted to education and publications at all general conventions expanding to include not only Sunday Schools but common schools, temperance and literary societies and high schools for the education of the “rising generation.”[15]

AME Founder Richard Allen. Image Source: Scraps of AME History

AME Founder Rt.  Rev. Richard Allen.
Image Source: Scraps of AME History

Augustus Turner leaves us none of his own words, only his deeds and the church he helped to build.  He had no formal education, but by all accounts this didn’t stop him from success in his business or class leadership. AME founder Richard Allen believed that the “plain simple gospel serves best for any group of people; for the unlearned to understand.” The AME “plain doctrine” and “good discipline” included “plain speech and dress,” as well as forbidding swearing, fighting, drinking, attending the theatre, gossiping and engaging in the slave trade.[16]

Augustus Turner served as the important role as a class leader from 1836 until his death in 1880. Within the Methodist Church there were three organizational units: the class, the society and the band. A person was first admitted to the church, and then given a ticket and assigned to a class. The class, the most significant of the three units, was comprised of a small group of 7 to 10 Members. Congregants were required to attend weekly class meetings, contribute dues and practice devotions under the supervision of the class leader. Through the discipline and structure of Methodism, Allen could pass along his “Yankee virtues of industry, thrift and self-reliance” to his brethren. This structure proved useful for the organization of political organizations, based on a similar model.[17]

9. Site of home of Augustus Turner

Forge History

Forge History

Find out more about other local heroes, at Indianapolis Society of African-American History & Culture

[1] The Indianapolis News, March 30, 1880.

[2] Obituary, Indianapolis World, May 15, 1880.

[3] Douglas W. Bristol Jr., Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Johns Hopkins Univerity Press, 2010); Leslie A. Schwalm, Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[4] Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana before 1900: a Study of a Minority (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

[5] Obituary, The Indianapolis News, March 30, 1880.

[6] Julius Bailey, Race Patriotism: Protest and Print Culture in the AME Church (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2012).

[7] The church emphasized that moral behavior served as an example to children congregants and the White community.  Julius Bailey, Around the Family Altar: Domesticity in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1865-1900 (University Press of Florida, 2005).

[8] As quoted in Newman, Freedom’s Prophet, 81; See also,  Social Protest Thought in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1862-1939; Payne, Recollections of 70 Years. For a more detailed history of the origins of the AME Church, see Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land.

[9] Bailey, Around the Family Altar; Richard S Newman, Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

[10] Stanley Warren, “The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Traces (Summer 2007): 32. For the December date, “Bethel AME Church: A Church in the heart of the city with a heart for the City,” undated typescript, “Bethel AME Church” Indianapolis Landmarks Archive, Indianapolis, IN.

[11] U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifth Census (1830) , Population, Marion County, Indiana, 181-182 as reported in Earline Rae Ferguson, “Blacks in Ante-bellum Indianapolis,”  in Indiana’s African-American Heritage: Essays from Black History News & Notes (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1993),123. There was James Overall, his wife, his young son and two adult females and one adult male also living in the house.

[12] Obituary, Indianapolis World, May 15, 1880.

[14] Palmer, Ronald, “AME Bishop William Paul Quinn” Notes Towards A Bibliographical Chronology of an American Original,” The AME Church Review CXX, no. 395 (2004): 40–61.; Clarence Earl Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982).Daniel A. Payne, Recollections of 70 Years (Arno Press, 1888),300.

[15] Walker, A Rock in a Weary Land, 7.

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