Nat Turner’s Bible donated to Smithsonian museum

Published 10:50 am Monday, February 20, 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C.—A family with Southampton County roots has donated Nat Turner’s Bible to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

“We just thought it had so much history and there’s so much bloodshed on it,” said Wendy Porter of Virginia Beach, who along with her father, Capron native Maurice Person, gave the Bible to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

A slave, Turner in 1831 led a revolt in Southampton County that became the bloodiest in American history. Fifty-five white Virginians died. In the aftermath, white militias retaliated against slaves. The state executed 56 slaves accused of being part of the rebellion. At least 100 blacks and possibly up to 200, were killed by militias and mobs.

Turner eluded capture until he was found in a hole covered with fence rails and arrested. On Nov. 5, 1831, Turner was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. He was hanged six days later in Jerusalem.

Maurice Person’s father, Walter, received the Bible in 1912 when the Southampton County Courthouse was being renovated.

“They had a bunch of things they didn’t want and he took the Bible since he belonged to Persons (United Methodist) Church (in Drewryville),” Porter said. “The family was into religion and Bibles.”

Maurice Person, who is in his 80s and lives in Virginia Beach, heard the Bible was Turner’s. The family had it on display for two years and then stored it in a safe-deposit box.

The family had hoped the Bible could go to someone who would preserve it, Porter said.

“The Bible is so fragile,” Porter said. “You can’t even open it without a page deteriorating.”

The Smithsonian was more than willing.

Nora Lockshin, a paper conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, examined the paper, leather, ink and arrangement of the pages, according to a published report. The book is missing both covers, part of its spine and one chapter. Its pages are yellowed, and there are watermarks and mold. Because of its age, it cannot be opened flat.

Rick Francis, a member of the Southampton County Historical Society, has known about the Bible belonging to the Person family for most of life. The 55-year-old on at least five occasions had asked to see it.

“They always said “yes,” but I never saw it,” Francis said.

He would prefer if the Bible remained in Southampton County or on loan to the historical society.

“One, to reunite the Bible with Nat Turner’s sword,” said Francis, noting the historical society has Turner’s sword used in the 1831 massacre.

It’s not on display yet, but has been restored, he said.

Maurice Person great-grandmother, Lavinia Francis, nearly became a victim of the massacre.

“On the night of the rebellion, they were going to kill her and her family,” said Porter, a former professor of women’s studies at Old Dominion University. “Her parents weren’t home. The house slaves hid her in a closet. She survived, but several other people were killed in the nearby area.”