WASHINGTON — Nat Turner is a revered figure to many African-Americans, a tangible example of someone who defied slavery’s shackles.
He was a slave who could read and write, an early rebel who, inspired by Scripture, led a bloody rebellion against whites in southern Virginia in 1831.
But to the white families once targeted by Turner’s band of slaves and freed blacks, he remains something altogether different, akin to today’s terrorists, responsible for the killing of more than 50 people, including women and children.
That paradox came together when Rex Ellis, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, got a call out of the blue from a Virginia family that said it had Turner’s Bible and wanted to donate it to the Smithsonian Institution, of which the museum is a part.
Such an artifact would be invaluable to the museum, which had to start its collection from scratch. Ellis, the associate director for curatorial affairs, knew that many tantalizing leads often fall through. This one, however, “was intriguing,” he said.
The location was right: Southampton County, Va. So was the family name, Francis, which was among the names of Turner’s victims. The story was also credible because Turner always carried a Bible.
Ellis, who is African-American, went to Virginia Beach, Va., to meet the young woman caller, Wendy Porter, who had convinced her family – particularly her stepfather, the Bible’s owner – that the book needed to be preserved for history.
In addition, Porter thought the Bible was showing signs of deterioration and needed the care of a museum, where it could also be seen by the public.
Porter’s mother brought out a bundle from the closet wrapped in an old dish towel, which Ellis said seemed to be as old as the Bible. She also said something that struck him; that the family knew that the Bible was important because “there was so much blood on it.” He realized that it could be authentic.
“All that excited me no end,” Ellis said. “I couldn’t wait to bring it back” to Washington for testing.
For Maurice Person, the Bible’s owner and Porter’s stepfather, the Bible created more complicated feelings. In an interview, he recalled the family story about his great-great-grandmother, Lavinia Francis, who was a young child at the time of the Turner raid.
“She was home one day, except for the servants,” said Person. “They got word that the Nat Turner group was approaching the house. The servants took her upstairs and hid her in a cubbyhole. That’s why I’m here today.”
Turner was tried and hanged. Slave owners killed more than 100, and possibly close to 200, black people in revenge.
The Bible could have been lost to history except that Person’s grandfather, Walter Carl Anthony, was at the courthouse in Courtland, Va., one day around 1900 when they were cleaning out the basement.
“He saw the Bible there and realized the significance,” said Person.
His grandfather acquired it, along with some records related to the case.
“It had a lot of very historical significance to it,” Person said. “It was great to have it in the house. . . . There’s not admiration for Turner. It’s more of a Southern history appreciation. This was a huge event in history, especially local history.”
He said he was “a little shocked” at his stepdaughter’s insistence about relinquishing the Bible, but given its condition and historical significance, “it seemed like the reasonable thing to do.”
The Bible is now on display in the exhibit “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” at the National Museum of American History. But it will become part of the black history museum’s permanent collection.
Ellis said blacks and whites might look at the artifact very differently.
“It’s challenging,” he said, “interpreting our history from a perspective that may seem to be maligning one community, while trying to support another with a symbol of dignity and freedom.”
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