Where hope collides with hate

Published 11:42 am Saturday, April 28, 2018

by John Railey

Some descendants of Nat Turner, the enslaved preacher who led that massive rebellion back in 1831, own a large chunk of farmland that is sacred ground for them. About two years ago, they put up a sign recognizing Turner on this soil near Boykins where Nat lived and was captured. That sign by a dirt road was recently shotgunned, an act that underscores the racist hatred that lingers in our county and nationwide.

And it made clear that there’s all the more need for the Southampton County Historical Society and other stalwarts to continue their push to preserve and objectively tell Turner’s story, especially as national interest in it keeps growing.

I saw the vandalism last weekend while riding on a bus tour of Turner’s revolt trail that Rick Francis, a descendant of both victims and survivors of the revolt, leads with his wife, Inga. As riders took photos of the sign on Cabin Pond Road, I sensed that Rick Francis and I were more angry than anyone at this crime, and that we both live in the past and the present. Standing along the revolt trail, then as now a remote section of Southampton County, you get a sense of living in parallel time. It’s easy to envision Turner and his band of enslaved men galloping on horseback up long dirt driveways to the houses of slaveowners, blazing a bloody trail into our consciousness as the nation’s only sustained slave revolt.

After generations of bondage and all that it entailed, Turner led his men in the killings of almost 60 men, women and children. That sparked the random revenge killings of many slaves and free blacks, and the court-ordered executions of Turner and others.

It’s painful history for the descendants of the victims and the insurgents with whom I was raised. But it’s only right that the history be told. And, for a county that could definitely use tourism money, it’s practical that the story be told.

It’s a pivotal chapter of American history known around the world, one endlessly explored in forms of art and of fact, mostly recently in the big-screen movie “Birth of a Nation,” the show “60 Minutes” and a National Geographic special. National Geographic has been using 21st-century technology to try to find Turner’s bones buried in Courtland, then called Jerusalem.

There has also been national coverage of the act of Maurice Person and his stepdaughter, Wendy Porter, to donate Turner’s Bible to the Smithsonian in honor of Porter’s children, Brooke and Noah. Mark Person, a distant cousin of mine, told me last week that the Bible had fallen into the Person family long ago, “but it was Mr. Turner’s Bible and it needed a caring home.”

As with all things Nat, Mark Person’s story is a complex one. He and Rick Francis have the same great-great-grandparents, Nathaniel and Luvinia Francis. Nathaniel was away from home as the insurgents approached, but a slave of Nathaniel’s brother Salathiel named Red Nelson alerted Luvinia after Turner’s band killed Salathiel. Nelson hid Luvinia in her house and threw Turner’s band off her trail as others were killed around her.

Mark Person, Rick Francis and others, building on the work of stalwarts like Kitty Futrell of Courtland, keep Turner’s story alive. Francis, the Southampton clerk of court, works in an office that holds the original documents of Turner’s sale and his court proceedings, including the confession he gave to local attorney Thomas Gray.

There are plans for a county museum that will include a section on Turner, and for computer-guided tours of Turner’s trail.

A lot more preservation is needed.

Jack and Ina Gee Pittman generously donated the last house Turner’s band hit, that of Rebecca Vaughan, to the historical society. It moved it to Courtland and is in the last stages of restoring it for visitors. A local family that lives in another house the band hit has faithfully preserved it. But those efforts are the exception. Most of the other houses on the Turner trail are gone now, and the few that aren’t are ragged, rotting remnants.

They should be saved through some combination of donations and government grants. As Inga Francis said during the tour last weekend, she grew up in Northern Virginia, where any house a historical figure even slept in is preserved.

Bruce Turner of Virginia Beach, a descendant of Nat, told me that the person who shot the Turner sign wasn’t necessarily racist. Given the prevalence of shotgunned signs in Southampton, he said, the person could just have been stupid.

But the movement to preserve his ancestor’s history, he said, “is not going to go away just because somebody shoots a sign.”

Indeed. Southampton County has hard-lived lessons that we can give the rest of the world.

JOHN RAILEY,  a freelance journalist and author who grew up in Courtland, can be reached at raileyjb@gmail.com.