Sunday, November 9, 2014
Lorenzo Dow Turner - head of the English departments at Howard University and Fisk University
Lorenzo Dow Turner was an African-American academic and linguist who did seminal research on the Gullah language of the Low Country of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. His studies included recordings of Gullah speakers in the 1930s. As head of the English departments at Howard University and Fisk University for a combined total of nearly 30 years, he strongly influenced their programs. He created the African Studies curriculum at Fisk, was chair of the African Studies Program at Roosevelt University, and in the early 1960s, cofounded a training program for Peace Corps volunteers going to Africa. 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. 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 (often in isolated locations) 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. 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. A junior high school in Chicago, the Turner Drew Language Academy, was dedicated to him (and to Charles Drew, an African-American scientist who invented a technique for storing blood).