Darwin T. Turner, Father of African American Studies

Darwin Turner photo

By Ryan Kambich

A childhood genius, trailblazing scholar, and lifelong devotee of the liberal arts, Darwin T. Turner (ΦBK, University of Cincinnati) dedicated his life and career to the struggle to legitimize the work of African American and Black authors as subjects of serious scholarly attention within academia, and to establish the credibility of African American studies. 

Considered a child prodigy, Turner entered the University of Cincinnati at the age of 13 in 1944. He earned his bachelor’s degree three years later in 1947 at the age of 16, accepting an invitation to the Phi Beta Kappa Society that same year. To this day, Turner remains the youngest student to enter and graduate from the university. He went on to complete his M.A. in English at 18 years old before earning his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago at the age of 25. 

Through these early years, Turner’s inquisitive mind and keen intellect shone through, nurtured by a similarly brilliant family of educators and scholarly pioneers. His grandfather was the first Black man to earn a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Chicago. Prior to Turner’s graduation, his mother held the honor of the University of Cincinnati’s youngest graduate – she completed her degree at the age of 18 before becoming a teacher in the Cincinnati public school system. His family deeply influenced Turner’s thought and scholarly development, as Wilfred D. Samuels wrote of his young life: “Turner’s apparent love for Afro-American culture was the product, no doubt, of his very secure childhood in which he blossomed under the auspices of role models who had been high achievers,” noting that the “greatest legacy which they bequeathed to their son/grandson was their pride as Afro-Americans and their love for their culture, which they used as impetus for his accomplishments, as well as to shelter the youth from the segregated world of World War II America.”

Despite Turner’s demonstrated brilliance during graduate study, implicit and explicit discrimination within the academy reduced the number of professorial positions available to the young scholar outside of historically black universities. Following completion of his Ph.D. in 1956, Turner briefly taught at Florida A&M before moving to North Carolina A&T, where he eventually served as dean of the graduate school from 1966 to 1970. These technical universities lacked the sort of firm commitment to the teaching of English and the liberal arts that would best use Turner’s talents – a  source of frustration for Turner’s ambitions as a scholar and educator. 

However, this period bore fruit for Turner as an author and literary critic. During the 1960s, Turner published widely on long-neglected African American writers – such as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston – while also writing broadly about the Harlem Renaissance, the African American dramatic tradition, and an in-depth analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Despite Turner’s impressive scholarly output, his main interest lay in teaching, particularly in the integration of African American literature into university English curricula. In 1970, Turner penned a seminal essay on the pedagogy of African American English studies, “The Teaching of Afro-American Literature,” in which he developed not only a scholarly legitimization for the inclusion of African American writers in English syllabi but also put forward an agenda for how administrators might go about instituting such curricular changes within the classroom. 

In the essay, Turner presents an eloquent defense of the teaching and judicious study of African American writers: “In a discipline which thus continually reaffirms its assumption that any segment of literary heritage is intellectually valid for study in higher education, it is both absurd and hypocritical to raise the question of academic respectability about the study of the literature of an ethnic group composed of people who have been publishing literary works in America for more than 200 years, who have created some of the best-known folktales in America.” 

Turner continues on to offer an affirmative statement of the entwined political and intellectual significance of such a pedagogy: “The reason for such a course is educational or – if you wish – political. Before protesting that our concern is artistic literature not politics, let us remind ourselves that college teachers do teach those documents at the beginnings of most anthologies of American literature – the writings of John Smith and Cotton Mather, the Mayflower Compact, etc. The documents provide a student with awareness of the intellectual and social history of America; the regional courses help him to understand the styles and attitudes of writers who represent a selected population in America. For similar reasons, courses in literature by Afro-American writers must be taught.”

Turner’s aspirations as an administrator and educator took a turn when, in 1972, he was appointed the second chair of the newly-created African American Studies Program at the University of Iowa. There, Turner set about enacting his pedagogical vision – struggling against the institutional inertia present in the academy by recruiting a faculty of talented young black scholars who, like Turner, had struggled to find promising appointments in academia. On his passing in 1991, poet Melba Boyd wrote of the climate of academic excellence that undue administrative scrutiny and suspicion compelled Turner to demand of his faculty: “Their articulations and their mastery of any discipline or occupation were aimed for this purpose. These men and women were perfectionists, because even in their perfection, they were deemed flawed through racial coding by antiquated mainstream thought, institutions, and systems.”

Turner remained in his position at the University of Iowa for the rest of his life. During that time, he continued to publish widely on literature of all sorts, composing important works of literary criticism such as In Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity and editing significant anthologies including The Art of the Slave Narrative: Original Essays in Criticism and Theory. He also took an active interest in promoting black theatre at Iowa. In addition to his scholarship, teaching, and administration, Turner was an active member of the Graduate Record Examination Board, the Modern Language Association, the National Council of Black Studies, and the Rockefeller Commission on the Humanities.  

Turner’s work as an educator and scholar was tragically cut short with his death in 1991. On his passing, The Langston Hughes Review devoted an entire issue to a Gedenkschrift of Turner’s life, career, and contributions to the advancement of African American studies – both as a classroom subject of study and source of serious academic consideration.

Today, the Darwin T. Turner Scholars Program at the University of Cincinnati helps to carry on Turner’s legacy of promoting academic excellence through its scholarship program which supports first-generation college students, members of underrepresented groups, and those who demonstrate leadership in advocacy for diversity and inclusion. Further, the University of Iowa’s African American Studies Program has inaugurated the Darwin Turner Endowment to raise funds for the advancement of African American studies. Finally, the outreach arm of Iowa’s Theatre Arts Department, the Darwin Turner Action Theatre, is named in his honor with a mission to promote African American culture among audiences throughout Iowa. 

Photo at top:  Darwin T. Turner, reproduced from a 1947 article in the Cincinnati Enquirer about his invitation to Phi Beta Kappa and upcoming college graduation at the age of 16. 

Ryan Kambich earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy, politics and the public at Xavier University, where he became a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2019. Xavier University is home to the Pi of Ohio chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.