What America can learn from my native county

Published 9:24 pm Saturday, March 26, 2016

Say you’re a little white child on a rural farm and a band of big black slaves roar up on horseback, slaughtering your family as you somehow scramble to safety.

Say you’re a black slave who belongs to that child’s family and you watch this scene play out, torn between joining the rebels and protecting your master’s family, all you’ve ever known, despite having been raised in the implicit brutality of another human being owning you.

These and many other scenes come to mind with news of a movie about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt in Southampton County, Va., the only sustained effort of its kind in American history. I and many other treasured buddies, black and white and raised in Southampton, are haunted by this revolt that killed almost 60 white men, women and children and led to the court-ordered executions of most of the small band of rebels and the random revenge killings of as many as 100 blacks. My contemporaries and I were just a few long generations past the carnage as we went through the first strange years of integration.

Nobody will ever understand Turner’s legacy like us — not the makers of “Birth of a Nation,” the first big-screen movie about the revolt led by the slave preacher Turner, which recently made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival. But some of my contemporaries and I worry that the film will play fast and loose with the facts, as other movies have done with history, warping this sensitive issue as viewers accept the film’s interpretation as fact.

We lived the troubling, uncomfortable legacy. Many whites feared blacks and many blacks feared whites in my boyhood years of the 1960s. But regardless of what the rest of the country thinks, many of us learned from the legacy. As many of us moved away, including me, other members of our families, black and white, stayed in place and enhanced our homeland, including by preserving the history of the revolt.

People with widely differing views on Turner, most notably with the Southampton County Historical Society, worked toward that.

I grew up with descendants of those killed by Turner’s band. I probably grew up with descendants of the killers, as well as descendants of innocent slaves killed in revenge, but my black contemporaries didn’t talk much about the revolt.

As far as I know, my Quaker ancestors in our county did not own slaves, but if they did, they were dead wrong.

Let me tell you about my beloved county.

It is a beautiful slice of fields and swamps in Virginia’s rural Tidewater, a county that will for me be forever defined by the Nottoway River, named for our resident Native American tribe, a slow-moving, narrow and twisting body of water that rolls through stands of pines and cypress, coursing into my very soul. The river flows by our county seat, Courtland, where the local jail stands on its bank, near the one where Turner was held. Courtland is a relatively new name. Back in Turner’s day, the county seat’s name was “Jerusalem.” Turner, by historical accounts, had a vision, one he drew from the Bible that he had learned to read. His vision: that of killing whites to liberate his people.

Whites crushed the revolt within a few days. Whites, many from other areas, killed blacks who weren’t involved in the rebellion. That action, as Patrick H. Breen suggests in his 2015 book “This Land Shall be Deluged in Blood,” was suppressed not in large part for any noble reason, but simply because slave-owners didn’t want anybody destroying their valuable property.

Turner and several others were hung, from a tree near my boyhood house, within a few months.

And Turner, the boogeyman of my childhood, leaves us struggling to this day.

He was no hero, but he was as crazy-mad as the madness of the slavery system that produced him. Nonviolence was not an option for him in the violent white world. But he should have taken his growing band of slaves, horses and guns and galloped north, fighting pursuers as need be, but not butchering women and children, guaranteeing the inevitable end of his revolt. As it was, his revolt made neither practical nor moral sense.

He did what he did in his homeland. My homeland.

His carnage was as repulsive and as wrong as slavery’s systemic rape, beatings and killings. There is nothing right in any of it.

But there is a measure of redemption to be had in confronting hard history and learning from it, as my county continues to do.

JOHN RAILEY, a Courtland native, is editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, where this column first appeared. His email address is jrailey@wsjournal.com.