History lives on

Published 9:01 am Friday, October 9, 2009

COURTLAND—Every two years, a tour bus filled with passengers — history buffs, preservationists, tourists, oddity and thrill seekers and the like — traverses the meandering roads of central and southwestern Southampton County.

There are no towns in this quarter of the county, only the occasional farmhouse and church. Most people driving past would probably give little notice to the occasional break in the woods, free-standing chimney or pile of bricks.

But the names of a few of the roads out here — noteably Peter Edwards, Porter House, Barrow and Clarksbury roads — provide passersby with a little hint as to what happened here 178 years ago.

This is the land where Nat Turner and more than 70 other slaves and free blacks went on a murderous rampage on Aug. 21 and 22, 1831.

“I grew up with this stuff,” said Rick Francis, who served as tour guide and narrator for the bus trip on Sept. 26. “I guess I’m kind of following in my father’s footsteps.”

Francis said his late father, Gilbert W. Francis, used to take people on Nat Turner tours, and in 1969-70 helped 20th Century Fox with their plans to make a movie on the insurrection with James Earl Jones playing the rebel leader.

“The thing wound up falling apart,” Francis said. “There was a lot of legwork done by my father and others to try and lay out positions for cameras and get permission from landowners. We even put someone from 20th Century Fox up in our house. But they ran out of budget.”

Francis said his father became sick from cancer and asked him to take his place narrating a video on the insurrection for students.

“I was happy to do so,” Francis said. “That got me hooked on it. It also involved family history and is one of the events that I can get my head around. I do enjoy studying this and having the people come to life by knowing a little bit more about them.”

Joseph and Sallie Travis, Francis’ great-great uncle and aunt, were the first of 55 whites who were murdered by Turner and his followers during the two-day uprising. Hundreds of blacks, most of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were slain by whites in reprisal killings over the following weeks.

“Sometimes I’m criticized for talking about this subject, but I’m not trying to elevate Nat Turner or to put him down,” Francis said. “But I find that (it would be unfortunate) if you don’t discuss it. If I do it for any one person or group of people, it would be for those who were caught up in (the violence) – the blacks and the whites – whose names would otherwise be lost to history. They would have died perhaps for nothing and without anybody ever knowing anything about them.”

The 55 people on the tour bus this year certainly were impressed with what they saw and heard.

“I think it’s excellent,” said Frank Brown of Chesapeake, “especially since it’s narrated by a descendant of one of the farmers here.”

Brown’s wife, Barbara, added that the tour was “very, very informative.”

Locals were also pleased with the tour.

“I think it’s great, it’s very interesting,” said Ruth Bouters of Newsoms. “I’ve read some books on Nat Turner, and I have some newspapers hanging on my wall regarding the insurrection. So I was really excited to be able to go on this tour.”