Blackhead Signpost Road needs another sign

Published 11:28 am Saturday, August 15, 2015

By Alfred Brophy

In Southampton County, the scene of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion, there is a move afoot to rename “Blackhead Signpost Road.” The road takes its name from a rebel whose severed head was placed on a pole as a warning to others. One of the first historians of the rebellion, writing in 1900, said that the signpost was “ever afterwards painted black as a warning against any future outrage.”

It is likely that the slave involved was Alfred, a blacksmith owned by Levi Waller, whose wife and children were murdered in the rebellion. According to a petition Waller filed with the Virginia legislature asking for compensation, Alfred was first caught by a small band of the local militia. They disabled him “by cutting the longer tendon just above the heel in each leg” and left him there by the side of the road as they went in search of other rebels. Then a group of mounted militia from Greensville County came along. They tied Alfred to a tree and shot him, because they “deemed that his immediate execution would operate as a beneficial example to the other Insurgents — many of whom were still in arms and unsubdued.” Despite his plea, (the owners of slaves who were executed after a trial received money, but those whose slaves died before trial typically received nothing), Waller never received a payment from the legislature.

Over the years, Alfred and the details have been forgotten, but the name has renamed.

The movement for renaming is being led by Mr. John Ricks, a retired Marine who lives in Southampton. He told the County Commissioners in July that “this is 2015, this is not 1860” and the name is “an insult. … those roads shouldn’t be there. We don’t need that. We really don’t.”

There’s a lot to be said for removing a name borne in the violence of the rebellion and especially because its message is to stay in place or face execution. It may be that the name continues to humiliate African-Americans in Southampton. If so, this may be one of those cases, like the Confederate flag over the statehouse in South Carolina, that just has to come down.

More important than whatever decision the county makes about naming is that Mr. Ricks has opened an important discussion and he’s helping us know our history.

But maybe what is needed more than removing the road name and thus facilitating forgetting of the rebellion and the violence from the dark days of slavery is yet another sign. It should tell us where the road name came from and what it has meant. We should remember who Alfred was and what happened along the New Jerusalem-Cross Keys Road (now known as Meherrin Road). Another sign can help us remember who we are and where we came from and maybe it can help us plot a course for a better future, too.

ALFRED BROPHY is the Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He writes about the law of monuments, cemeteries, and the trials of the Turner rebels.