McGee reveals mayhem at Cross Keys
Published 8:32 pm Tuesday, January 10, 2023
Renowned Southampton County painter James McGee seeks to reveal truth and cultivate unity through his work on the canvas, which has gained international recognition.
His latest effort, which he unveiled in late November, tells the story of a slave girl named Charlotte, of whom many may not have been aware.
Charlotte’s story is connected to Nat Turner’s insurrection in 1831.
Turner led an unprecedented slave rebellion in Southampton County in August 1831 that ultimately resulted in the murder of at least 55 white people, PBS.org stated.
Then the Public Broadcasting Service summarized the retaliation to the insurrection.
“In total, the state executed 55 people, banished many more, and acquitted a few,” PBS.org stated. “The state reimbursed the slaveholders for their slaves. But in the hysterical climate that followed the rebellion, close to 200 Black people, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion, were murdered by white mobs. In addition, slaves as far away as North Carolina were accused of having a connection with the insurrection, and were subsequently tried and executed.”
The story of Charlotte that McGee shares in his painting comes during the time of retaliation to Turner’s insurrection.
Though the graphic nature of McGee’s painting precludes it from being published in the paper, McGee, along with his wife, Lavinia McGee, and his son, Phillip Christopher McGee, shed light on the harrowing scene of torture and its historical significance, first addressing the historic slave revolt that led up to it.
“It was an earth-shaking, country-changing event,” James said.
James made it clear that he does not exalt the insurrection.
“Get it straight — I do not glorify the insurrection, I do not glorify the combative part of it or the results of it,” he said.
He acknowledges Turner was a cruel man, but he encourages people to ask a question in the face of that fact.
“Why was he?” he asked.
James indicated that people in positions of power do not want to address that question because they think the answer is detrimental to their image.
“He did a cruel thing, he was a mean man,” James said of Turner. “Why was he cruel? Why was he mean in your eyesight? They don’t want to talk about that.”
Beginning to address what is depicted in James’ painting of Charlotte, Lavinia said, “People don’t know the cruelty that went into this incident in 1831, because it has been trampled down so much that Nat Turner is the nasty person, the mean man, but nobody talks about how they were killing Black people.”
James’ painting of Charlotte is titled “Mayhem At Cross Keys, Southampton County, Virginia, (1831),” and he describes it as depicting the torture and murder of Charlotte.
Phillip said, “My dad, who is indeed the artist, has designed it from his image based on literal facts that were documented at that particular spot, which is still in existence here in the county.”
James explained that during the insurrection, Turner came to the Nathaniel Francis plantation where Charlotte lived, and Charlotte asked to ride with Turner and his men, but they did not take her with them.
“She told them that she was going to prepare a supper for them when they came back,” James said.
He added that the mistress of the plantation, Francis’ wife, had been in hiding during Charlotte’s exchange with Turner and his men, and she revealed herself after they left.
“(Charlotte) wanted to destroy her mistress,” James said, but he noted that another slave girl prevented Charlotte from killing her. “When her mistress’ husband came home, he heard other people talking. And when his wife told him about what Charlotte had done, he took Charlotte to Cross Keys, and that’s where they slow-tortured her to death.”
James’ painting depicts this scene in progress at Cross Keys.
“It depicts Cross Keys as a place of retaliation,” he said, noting that those retaliating were also trying to glean information about who else was involved in the insurrection. “And from what I heard, it was over 200 tortured and maimed right there at that place.”
Addressing James’ painting, Lavinia said, “It’s more than Charlotte on here that’s down. There’s other people down too, and there’s a child who’s just looking; he’s learning how to deal with people of color when he gets to be that age.”
James said Cross Keys was a notorious place; a variety of other activities occurred there as well, including slave auctions.
“It was a well-known, famous place,” he said. “There was more activity taking place at Cross Keys than in Jerusalem, which was Courtland at that time.”
James explained that he does a great deal of research to make sure details are accurate in his paintings, including the specific styles of clothing worn and type of guns used at the time.
Phillip summed up what his father is trying to accomplish with the painting of Charlotte at Cross Keys.
“The goal is for everyone who is not knowledgeable of what occurred at that point in time here in the most historical place in the eastern part of Virginia, which is Southampton County, we want to make sure that they see that,” he said. “It’s a place that they pass by daily and don’t recognize.”
He emphasized the importance of acknowledging that events like Charlotte’s story took place.
”If you’re not willing to accept the truth about what has happened previously to see where you are now, then what is your plan for the future?” he asked.
WHAT INSPIRES THE ARTIST
Born in Richmond and raised in Southampton County, James, who is now 87 years old, first began painting when he was a 9-year-old student at Hayden Elementary School.
“I was encouraged by the teachers who were teaching me in school,” he said. “The teachers knew that I was limited, but they saw my talent, and they would get me to paint scenes according to the period.”
He described himself as “a late bloomer,” and he noted that as a pre-teen, he began to do work on the wall of his room, for which he received a reprimand from his mother.
“I was painting and drawing and sketching on the wall because that was the only sketch pad I had,” he said. “So I had a room full of things, figures, as I saw them and as they came to me.”
He advanced in his abilities, gaining an appreciation for the Dutch masters.
“I’m a realist. I do like to see other people play with colors,” he said. “I like some impressionism when I can see it and get the images rather than the abstract part of it. I keep up with that.”
He noted that he is a historian as well, being a habitual reader who has read thousands of books. He said he entered into what he describes as “the advanced way of thinking” by doing three things.
“First, I began to read; then I began to travel; and then the next was to observe,” he said.
He ultimately summed up what he gained from those three things — common sense.
“That’s all it is,” he said. “And I’m going to keep using it.”
James listed several things and people that inspire his creative works, first noting that he is inspired by the teachings of Jesus.
He has done some of his painting on-site at Cross Keys to spur inspiration by being at the location.
“I’m inspired by the people who suffered and the people who sacrificed for me to be standing in this room today,” he said in his Southampton County home. “I pay them homage.”
He also said he is inspired by good white folk.
Referring to present-day challenges, he said, “I have to say it, and I want to say it, I’ve got to say it — this racial divide has to stop, and if my work can do anything to contribute to the ending of it, I want to do it. … If it’s unity, I want to be a part of it.”
James does not sell his work, and what he does not keep on display at his home, he gives away.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., wanted to put one of his most famous works, “On the Road to Jerusalem,” on display in the museum, but he declined because he wanted his work to be for Southamptonians and anyone who would like to visit.
“We have opened our house as a museum,” he said, and visitors have come from all over the world and are granted free admission. “We have a place that is the public’s, that belongs to everybody who walks through my door.”
He made it clear he is not in this for himself.
“It’s for you,” he said, later adding, “for me personally, I just do what God has given me the talent to do and step back.”