Where hope collides with hate

SOUTHAMPTON COUNTY, Virginia – Some descendants of Nat Turner, the enslaved preacher who led that massive rebellion back in 1831, own a large chunk of farmland here that is sacred ground for them. About two years ago, they put up a sign recognizing Turner on this spot of soil in backcountry Tidewater, Virginia, 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 people of the homeland I share with Turner to continue their push to preserve and objectively tell Turner’s story, especially as national interest in it keeps growing. Just as there is a need for such preservation nationwide.

Staring at that shotgunned sign, I thought about that need. I hung out with the late William Styron, whose 1968 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize, and I’ve spent time with Nate Parker, whose 2016 film, The Birth of a Nation, will live on as a classic, despite being ignored by the Oscars types.

Here’s what Parker told me about that shotgunned sign: “This isn’t merely an act of vandalism, but a hate crime against the memory of a man who sacrificed his life for the liberation of black people in America. While hate crimes and supremacist groups continue to gain momentum in this country, Nat Turner’s message of resistance in the face of racial terror remains more relevant now than ever.”

We’re all on a journey in this country, whether we like it or not, an often dangerous dance of confronting our original sin of slavery and the carnage in its wide wake that haunts us to this day. But it’s a dance we must do.

I saw the sign vandalism recently while riding on a bus tour of Turner’s revolt trail that my friend 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 Francis and I were angrier 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 my home 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 most famous sustained slave revolt.

Nat was hanged from a tree less than a mile from the house where I grew up. Many elders told us then that Nat was “boogeyman,” even as the rare liberal parents like mine tried to educate us about the conditions from which he sprang.

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 is told. And, for my county, one that could definitely use tourism money, it’s practical that the story is told, just as it’s long been told in places likes Birmingham, Alabama, and, most recently, in Montgomery, Alabama.

The Turner revolt is a pivotal chapter of American history known around the world, one endlessly explored in forms of art and of fact, most recently in Parker’s film and the show 60 Minutes. National Geographic has also run a special that involves using 21st-century technology to search for Turner’s bones buried in the Southampton County seat of Courtland, then called Jerusalem.

There has also been national coverage of Maurice Person and his stepdaughter Wendy Porter’s donation of Turner’s Bible to the Smithsonian in honor of Porter’s children, Brooke and Noah. Mark Person of Richmond, a distant cousin of mine, told me 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, my cousin Mark’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.

The Southampton County Historical Society has plans for a county museum that will include a section on Turner and for computer-guided tours of Turner’s trail. But a lot more preservation is needed.

Local residents 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.

Just as with other spots along the long road to racial justice in America, the spots in my homeland should be saved through some combination of donations and government grants. As Inga Francis said during the recent bus tour, 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 my home county, 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. And so do many other localities around our country.