Two worlds at Cross Keys include Nat Turner

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Recognizing the anniversary of the Nat Turner Rebellion of Aug. 21, 1831, teachers and 25 kids from the Fox Hall Camp in Chesapeake arranged a guided tour of Nat Turner country with Bill Bryant, the author of “Tomorrow Jerusalem,” a book about Nat Turner and the insurrection.

Bryant is a senior tour guide at Jamestown Festival Park. He took the day off to be with us to teach us. We gathered at Cross Keys in Southampton County, a crossroads of history out in nowhere in a pastoral sea of green fields.

“For self-protection during the uprising,” Bryant said, “hundreds and hundreds of terrified white people fled to this very place.”

Bill’s voice is clear and true and magical even as we learn that Nat Turner was a preacher with his own voice clear and true and magical. To understand yesterday, we must try to feel what it was like to be black back then, to be bought and sold, to neither read nor write, to have no church to pray in. I look into the faces of the children around me. We are beginning to feel that Nat’s time is our time.

At the end of our tour there were questions and answers: Could something like this happen again? Do you remember Watts? What is Watts?

Was Nat sorry for what he did? After killing one person he withdrew to the back of the pack. He was horrified. Was Nat crazy? Nat had a wonderful wife named Cherry and he had children who lived on, and still live here and all over this country. Why did he do it?

Why do men fly planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and try to blow up the White House?

Did they kill women and children? Yes. Did things get better after the rebellion? Virginia’s Slave Laws, already about the most repressive of any slave laws, got stricter.

Abolitionists were warned to stay out. About 30 slaves were hanged or banished from the state. Did Nat get a fair trial? Yes, he did. The spotlight was on Virginia. Authorities were certain to see that Nat got a fair trial. Could there ever be another Nat Turner?

No answer.

You will not find these questions and answers on the standardized tests.

Thank goodness for the blessing of amazing grace. For the awareness that comes when bridges fall down and we fix our broken infrastructure.

Bill Bryant says that the Nat Turner insurrection was the defining event of the 19th century, coloring everything in American history since. Were it not for this horrible thing that happened in Virginia, would there have been a Civil War, an Emancipation Proclamation?

The following passage was written by Quierra Curtis, a sixth-grader at Churchland Primary. His was the group’s winning essay.

We went on a field trip to a place where Nat Turner helped the blacks when we were trying to find freedom away from the white people that controlled us.

Back then we were looking for white people who wanted to help us; they were called abolitionists. They actually wanted to help us blacks to freedom and told us that we would be free someday and not be forced to do what white people made us do.

Since we were black we couldn’t learn to read or write.

The white people said we were not smart enough to learn like white people can learn. We blacks couldn’t stand this slavery. We wanted to be able to spell, read, write and pronounce words. We want desks and a schoolhouse to learn in like white people have.

If we even asked a question like “Can I learn how to read and write?” we would get whipped until we bled.

Most of us had scars on our backs because of the whips they used on us.

We got paid very little money, so we can’t really take care of our family.

Why don’t some blacks go down to Waterside for Harbourfest?


Because there was an auction block down there in Nat Turner’s time.

No blacks go there because that’s where we blacks got stripped naked and they counted our teeth. If we bit them, we’d get whipped.

They would strip us women down to show if we were able to breed.

When we were bought we would be loaded on a wagon and have our name changed to something stupid, and the names they gave us wouldn’t sound right together.

I don’t know about you, but I would have been frustrated.

Instead of being able to preach in a church, we preached in the field. The white people said we were not worthy enough to preach in a church.

Nat Turner helped us preach about freedom and dream about the day we’d run to freedom.

Nat preached that it was his dream to lead his people to freedom and he couldn’t wait.

He had to do something.

Bill Smith is the director of Fox Hall Learning Center in Chesapeake. The e-mail address at Fox Hall is