“The purpose of slave breeding was to produce new slaves without incurring the cost of purchase, to fill labor shortages caused by the termination of the Atlantic slave trade, and to attempt to improve the health and productivity of slaves. Slave breeding was condoned in the South because slaves were considered to be subhuman chattel, and were not entitled to the same rights accorded to free persons.”
A cast iron bust of Cudjo Lewis, one of the last survivors of the slave ship Clotilde, can be found in front of the historic Union Missionary Baptist Church in Africatown. (Graveyardwalker (Amy Walker) Wikimedia Commons )
“The excitement and joy is overwhelming,” says Woods, in a voice trembling with emotion. She is 70 years old now. But she’s been hearing stories about her family history and the ship that tore them from their homeland since she was a child in Africatown, a small community just north of Mobile founded by the Clotilda’s survivors after the Civil War.The authentication and confirmation of the Clotilda was led by the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists and divers who specialize in historic shipwrecks. Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Slave Wrecks Project (SWP) joined the effort to help involve the community of Africatown in the preservation of the history, explains Smithsonian curator and SWP co-director Paul Gardullo.”
“After the Emancipation Proclamation, the newly freed Africans tried, but failed to return to their beloved homeland Africa. The story describes the group reuniting from various plantations, alongside American-born, formerly enslaved men, women and children. The Africans bought land and founded their own settlement, which came to be known as Africatown.”
The Full Story:
BOYKINS, Va. — Kids grow up in rural Southampton County hearing that the mist creeping across the fields might be something unearthly. Old folks warn them not to sneak into abandoned houses, where rotting floors and walls are said to be stained with blood.
This is a haunted landscape.
Nearly 188 years ago, the self-styled preacher Nat Turner led fellow slaves from farm to farm in Southampton County, killing almost every white person they could find. Scores of blacks were murdered in reprisals throughout the South.
The legacy of the biggest slave revolt in U.S. history still hangs over the sandy soil and blackwater cypress swamps of this county along the North Carolina line, but the physical traces of the event are vanishing.
“A lot of the sites that tell the story have been destroyed,” said Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a historian at Norfolk State University. In Southampton and elsewhere, she said, neglect and denial have “tended to obliterate the presence of African Americans . . . as well as eliminating our history of slavery.”
History is Virginia’s biggest cash crop. It drives tourism, sets identity. Until recently, Virginia’s celebration of its grand past glossed over the stain of slavery that marks every statue, parchment and Flemish bond facade.
That’s changing: This year, the state commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first documented Africans being brought to the English colony. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello presents detailed narratives of enslaved life. A museum that will include the perspective of the enslaved on the Civil War is opening in Richmond.
But around the state, tangible reminders of slave history remain unmarked. The landmarks are deteriorating, their significance preserved mainly in memories and stories. Petersburg’s 1854 Southside Depot, for instance, is one of the few pre-Civil War train stations in the South, where the enslaved were both workers and cargo. It sits empty.
Scholars are racing to identify slave cabins across Virginia before they disappear. In Richmond, leaders squabble over how to mark the site of the notorious Lumpkin’s Jail, a slaveholding facility, as well as the city’s slave market — one of the most active in the South — without disrupting the hip restaurant-and-condo scene growing up around it.
“What we choose to preserve is really a reflection of what we care about,” said Justin Reid, director of African American Programs for Virginia Humanities, who is helping coordinate a statewide effort to recognize slavery’s legacy. “When our cultural landscape is devoid of these sites, we’re sending the message that this history is less important, and the people connected to these sites are less important.”
Nowhere is the tension stronger than in Southampton County, where the history carries particular pain. Nat Turner is both a villain and a hero of American history. The split has long inflamed racial divides.
Born into slavery around 1800, Turner was literate, charismatic and deeply religious. He once baptized a white man, and some accounts describe how he spent 30 days wandering the county in search of his father before voluntarily resuming his life in bondage.
According to the confessions he allegedly made shortly before being executed, Turner saw visions from God urging him to seek vengeance on his white oppressors. A solar eclipse that passed over Southampton County in 1831 was the sign to act. On Aug. 21, he met with a half-dozen other enslaved people at a pond in the woods, where they plotted for several hours before striking out into the night, taking knives and farm implements to use as weapons.
Attacking farmhouses in the darkness and picking up supporters along the way, Turner and his rebels killed some 55 white men, women and children over the next two days. They were eventually scattered by militia infantry, and some were rounded up and killed or put on trial. Turner escaped and hid out for two months mostly in a crude “cave” — a hole dug under a pile of wood — before surrendering on Oct. 30, 1831.
He was tried and hanged Nov. 11, 1831, in the county seat of Jerusalem, known today as Courtland.
Until recently, the all-white county historical society was uncertain how to handle its macabre legacy. Within the past 10 years, though, as popular interest in Turner’s story has grown — including through the controversial 2016 film “Birth of a Nation” — attitudes have loosened.
Work is underway to establish slave-insurrection-history trails: a walking route in Courtland and a driving tour through the southwest corner of the county where the rebellion took place. Much of the information for both resides in the mind of one man.
“If you want to know anything about Nat Turner,” said Thaddeus Stephenson, 55, a black man who said he lives near one of Turner’s hideouts, “Rick Francis is the man.”
Behind the wheel of a Chevy Suburban with 338,000 miles on the odometer, Francis pulls onto the shoulder at a featureless crossroads. Open farmland stretches in every direction.
This is Cross Keys. Francis begins to populate the scene. There was a wide, shallow building there, he says. A smaller structure across the street. In the summer of 1831, some 1,400 white people gathered here, pouring out of surrounding farms in fear of Turner and the armed rebels.
Militias converged from around the state and from North Carolina. When some members of Turner’s band were rounded up, they were held in a small cell in one of the buildings.
It’s all gone now, not even a mound or brick left to mark the spot. It exists only in Francis’s spirited retelling.
Francis, 63, who is white, is clerk of the county’s circuit court. Several of his ancestors were either victims of Turner’s insurrection or had narrow escapes. Over the course of an afternoon driving around the remote reaches of the county near the village of Boykins, Francis spins a tale of terror, violence and colorful characters — from Red Nelson, the enslaved man who helped save Francis’s pregnant great-great-grandmother, to Will Francis, perhaps the most fearsome killer in Turner’s band.
“He trimmed my family tree,” Rick Francis says of Will Francis, a man owned by one of his ancestors. “I mean, that guy was a killing machine.” But he gives him credit: Where Turner was a “religious fanatic,” he says, Will Francis “was motivated solely by freedom.”
As Francis drives along the old carriage paths, most of which are now paved, he sees things others do not.
Over there, where the dark grass meets the light, that’s where Joseph Travis and his wife were the first ones hacked to death in the insurrection. Where a rusted double-wide trailer stands was the site of Capt. John Barrow’s home. He warned his wife to flee, but she delayed to change her clothes, so he had to fight the rebels on the front porch. His wife escaped out the back; Barrow’s throat was cut.
Many of the homes were still standing as late as the 1970s, but time and weather have ravaged them. Local landowners cannot afford to rebuild so they just clear the rubble. The Richard Porter House is a dark hulk of warped wood, half of it collapsed, all of it shrouded in vines. Here, a young enslaved girl warned the family what was coming and they fled into the woods.
A few miles away, Francis swings off the road, switches on the four-wheel-drive and powers to a nondescript mound of brush. Only when he stops do a low row of bricks, a collapsed tin roof and jagged piles of gray boards become visible under the greenery: the remains of the house of Jacob Williams, who returned from measuring timber in the forest to find his slaves standing over the bodies of his wife and three children.
Nearby, the widow Rebecca Vaughan was allowed to pray before she was killed. Her house, the scene of the insurrection’s final killings, was relocated a few years ago to a spot in Courtland across from the county agriculture museum. It has been neatly restored by the county but remains empty.
The tree where Turner was hanged fell long ago. Francis puts the site in the yard of an old foursquare house on Bride Street in Courtland. A short distance away, around the corner on High Street, is the ditch where Turner’s torso was said to have been tossed after he was decapitated. Sure enough, Francis said, human remains have been found there. At some point, the county hopes to excavate. In the meantime, the spot is marked by tiny wire flags stuck in the weeds, the sort that might designate a property line or a cable route.
The county courthouse stopped flying the Confederate flag in 2015, but a Confederate monument stands on one side of the complex. Inside, in the county records room, Francis maintains a mini-museum to the slave insurrection, displaying old newspapers and artifacts.
The biggest prize is Turner’s sword, which is locked away in a courthouse storeroom in a padded rifle case. Francis tucks a pistol in his waistband when he goes to retrieve it. He opens the case and unfolds a white cloth. The curved blade is pitted, and though Turner complained that it was too dull to kill the woman he struck with it, the edge feels plenty sharp.
The Southampton County Historical Society has resisted putting the sword on display. Francis said its members worry people won’t take the tour if they can see the most memorable artifact up front. But maybe there is also a squeamishness about showing off such a fraught piece of history.
Francis believes the insurrection needs to be more widely recognized as an important turning point. It brought the Virginia legislature within a few votes of abolishing slavery, but ultimately, lawmakers tacked the other way, passing harsh crackdowns that prohibited blacks from preaching or learning to read.
Turner is a complicated figure even for African Americans who grew up in Southampton County. Bruce Turner, 71, said his older relatives spoke in hushed terms of a family connection to “the Nat mess.” After years of research, he believes Nat Turner was his great-great-great-grandfather. And by learning more about him, Bruce Turner has become proud of the association.
“I wasn’t sure what he did was right or wrong,” said Turner, a retired computer engineer who lives in Virginia Beach. “Today I admire and honor Nat. I think what he did was correct.”
It’s important to view the insurrection through the historical lens of fighting for freedom, Turner said. The houses, the landscape of Southampton County, evoke that for him now that he knows the full story.
“The houses that were down there . . . we used to call those the haunted houses,” Turner said. “And we were told something terrible had happened there.”
In his childhood, the hanging tree still stood, and the Vaughn house was abandoned in the woods.
“I was always told, oh, you don’t want to go in there, there’s blood spattered up on the walls, and stuff like that. I went in there. I only saw some spots. But it could’ve been mold,” he said.
Stephenson, who lives near one of Nat Turner’s hideouts, heard the same tales about the old houses. “The bricks from the chimney — sometimes when it rains, blood is supposed to seep back out of them,” he said. “That’s some folklore.”
But when you preserve those vanishing sites, you keep the history from fading into myth, Turner said.
“Why preserve Mount Vernon? Or preserve Monticello? They’re part of the history,” he said. “Just because something bad may have happened at a place, or something that was distasteful, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be kept.”
On the marital status of U. S. slaves: Evidence from Touro Infirmary, New Orleans Louisiana☆
The former slave imagined a better America than this. Too many white people want to go backward: But there’s hope
OUR COMMON GROUND Voice, CHAUNCEY DEVEGA
JULY 4, 2018 10:00AM (UTC)
Frederick Douglass knew that America has a white democracy problem. That rot was never corrected. The result? Donald Trump and his human deplorables. Racism is destroying American democracy. But then again racism is the real foundation of this country.
“Every year, on America’s birthday, I read Frederick Douglass’s essay “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
I was first introduced to Frederick Douglass while in elementary school. My sixth grade teacher, a stern but kind black woman, knew that I, the only black boy in her class, would benefit greatly from his wisdom and example. She was right.
The book “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” was wondrous.
It was the amazing adventure of a man who fights to free his people by first liberating his mind and then his body from the evils of white-on-black slavery.
Douglass tricks gullible white children to teach him how to read . . . ”
ABOUT CHAUNCEY DEVEGA
Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.
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The good white folks of the Academy
The Academy Awards have made progress in terms of racial representation. This year a film about slavery is the clear front-runner in many of the major categories, and if “12 Years a Slave” or “Gravity” wins best picture, it would be the first time a movie by a nonwhite director takes the prize. It’s also possible that Lee Daniels (“The Butler”) could join Steve McQueen (“12 Years”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity”) to make best director a majority-minority category for the first time ever.
It’s certainly a relief to see Oscar-nominated films about black experience actually written and directed by black people (unlike, for example, recent Oscar darlings “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” and “The Blind Side”). But it’s the movie’s producers — who have more power over a film’s content than most recognize — who will actually walk up to accept the best picture statuette. Unsurprisingly, most of them are still white.
That might be one reason why the representations of black experience that the Academy deems best-picture-worthy remain fundamentally unchallenged. Out of the 120 films that received a best picture nomination in the last 20 years, only 17 featured nonwhite protagonists or major characters. In all but four of those films these characters were either extremely poor or criminals. Out of the four remaining, one featured a slave (“Django,” 2012), another an entertainer (“Ray,” 2004), another an athlete (“Jerry Maguire,” 1996). Needless to say, the white characters in these and the other 103 films nominated for best picture held a much wider variety of occupational and socioeconomic positions.
When “The Butler” is nominated this year — as it will surely be when nominations are announced on Thursday — it will buck this trend by featuring a black domestic servant who happens to be middle class [editor’s note: the film was not nominated for best picture]. The biopic traces the civil rights movement through the eyes of one of the White House’s black butlers. In its version of 20th-century black struggle, the civil rights bill came about because the movement appealed to the goodness of JFK’s heart (rather than forcing his hand with its power), the Black Panthers were overaggressive youth who got what they deserved, and Obama’s election is the apotheosis of everything the movement was fighting for. “The Butler” won’t win, but it would have had a much better chance last year, when historical-revisionist ideology celebrating the executive branch (“Argo,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Lincoln”) was all the rage.
Based on a true story
A much better film, “12 Years a Slave” focuses on the visceral horrors of American slavery. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and John Ridley, among others, it tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold in the decades before the Civil War. Based on Northup’s memoir of the same title, it’s a well-crafted and emotionally powerful film, and for many has provided a devastating condemnation of slavery.
And yet it has major shortcomings. The film portrays the North in 1841 as a racism-free place where black and white live in harmony. White characters get much more dialogue and characterization than black ones: We learn more about the life story of Armsby, a white laborer who appears for two scenes, than we ever do about Patsey, one of the film’s slave protagonists. The slaves are often singing but rarely speak to one another: They remain mostly-silent extras whose graphically suffering bodies make us feel bad about slavery. Though there is a plethora of white stars, the three famous black actors outside of Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead character get token roles, appearing only once or twice. What happens when we recognize the white characters and actors, while the black people remain largely anonymous? Who does this suggest the film is for?
In the predictable ending, the good white people outmaneuver the evil white people and return Northup to safety. The obvious defense of this dramatic device — “but that’s what really happened!” — shows exactly how “based on a true story” shuts down critical thought. The point is not to question its factual accuracy: The film by all accounts keeps quite close to Northup’s memoir (although some scholars debate the memoir’s veracity). But that objection ignores the fact that the filmmakers chose to tell this particular story and to tell it in this particular way.
Executive producer and screenwriter Ridley’s 2006 article “The Manifesto of Ascendancy for the Modern American Nigger,” in which he glorifies Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Ayn Rand and calls on wealthy black people to separate themselves from “niggers” — i.e., poor black folks who victimize themselves — exemplifies this position on race and storytelling. Ridley writes, “If we as a race could win the centuries-long war against institutionalized racism, why is it that so many of us cannot secure the advantage after decades of freedom?” Of course, the idea that institutionalized racism disappeared with Jim Crow is absurd. But Ridley’s answers to this loaded question imply that now that racism is over, then black folks have no one to blame but themselves and should drop their anger and just forgive white people, for their own good.
A historical aberration
Modern filmmakers who want to accurately convey the evils of slavery could do so through the stories of Toussaint Louverture or Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass — or any of the other thousands of slaves who didn’t look to white saviors to escape their bondage. But you’d never know from watching Hollywood movies that a single slave ever freed herself. “Django Unchained,” “Glory,” “Lincoln” — these films all feature the benevolent intervention of white protagonists. Even Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” about a slave uprising, is as much about the white lawyers arguing the slaves’ case.
A particular narrative about slavery is told over and over: The institution was a historical aberration perpetrated by evil white people, but luckily there were good white people who listened to the black people, and they helped free the slaves, and now it’s all over. A similarly simplistic narrative emerges out of Hollywood’s revision of the civil rights movement: In “The Butler,” the cause was noble, but some black people took it too far and it was ultimately victorious because white presidents listened to the brave moderate blacks and beat the evil white racists. Now racism is over, because, you know, Obama.
Thanks to the Oscars, hundreds of thousands more will see the versions of black history told by “The Butler” and “12 Years a Slave”: A best picture nomination is a huge boon for ticket sales, adding millions to a film’s box office, rental take, and audience. The Academy that chooses who gets that cash is 77 percent male, 94 percent white and 86 percent over the age of 50. As such, if a movie wants that precious Oscar bump, it would do well to reproduce the worldview of the rich old white men who run the industry. And that’s precisely why “Fruitvale Station,” the movie about the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant, a young black man whose murder by police in Oakland sparked riots, is unlikely to receive a nomination.
“Fruitvale Station” won the 2013 Sundance Grand Jury award, the same award that “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” another film about black experience in America, won in 2012. Notorious Oscar campaigner the Weinstein Co. distributed “Fruitvale Station,” and it opened in more than 1,000 theaters. It was met with universal critical acclaim and made $16 million at the box office, more than presumptive nominees “Nebraska” or “August: Osage County.” The point being, this is no tiny indie or critical cause celebre: “Fruitvale Station” has a solid resume for a best picture nominee. It’s even based on a true story! Commentators have claimed it’s not “stylistically innovative” enough, but it’s stylistically consistent with the washed-out steadycam of guaranteed nominee “Captain Phillips,” and a markedly better movie to boot. “Fruitvale Station” develops real emotional stakes (unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street”), refuses to stereotype its black characters (unlike “The Butler”) and doesn’t rely on precious twee misogyny to make you care about its protagonist (unlike “Her”).
But the Oscars have never been about celebrating the year’s best movie (“Crash,” anyone?). The real problem for “Fruitvale Station” is that it’s a film about racism without a happy ending. It’s about a tragedy that cannot be redeemed. Not that it’s even a particularly radical film — it just can’t pretend that time has solved the problems it portrays, as “12 Years a Slave” does, and can’t give the contradictions of history a tidy conclusion, as “The Butler” does with Obama’s election. Instead, it connects into a current struggle, evoking the trauma and horror that racist violence and overpolicing produce in minority communities across the country.
The point is not to berate the Oscars for not nominating “Fruitvale Station,” but rather to see how the Oscars, and the film-critical apparatus surrounding them, dictate what constitutes a “serious” depiction of race. No one really believes the Oscars are a meritocracy, but the awards still end up giving certain movies massive new audiences, deciding which films critics will write about and people will talk about.
If, come March 2, when the envelopes are opened, “12 Years a Slave” gets snubbed — beaten by, say, “American Hustle” — expect a lot of people to start talking about the racism of the Oscars. They’ll be right to. But if “12 Years a Slave” wins, let’s not be too hasty in celebrating the Academy’s rich white men for an anti-racist victory.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America’s editorial policy.
Petition to Demand the U.S. Government form Task Force on Reparations for Slavery and Jim Crow
Let it be known, we are demanding that a Task Force, or Commission, be formed for reparations for the descendants of Africans who were enslaved in the United States of America for centuries.
Whereas reparations means to make amends, to repair, and to compensate, the people who were wronged;
We demand reparations on behalf of the descendants of enslaved Africans in America from the government of the United States of America;
Whereas America was built with and continues to enjoy the benefits of her centuries of forced, unpaid labor known as slavery;
Whereas, slavery in America remains the worst known atrocity in human history;
Whereas, this dehumanizing practice enabled the United States to rise to global prominence, to accumulate massive amounts of wealth, and to build the world’s most formidable military, among others achievements, to become the world’s only Superpower;
Whereas, U.S. House Bill H.R. 40, as it was originally sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, provides a viable outline that best suits this measure. We further recognize reparations as the only way forward to move towards resolution of this human rights issue;
Whereas, the purpose and goal of this Task Force, or Commission, is to determine how reparations will be made to the descendants of the Africans enslaved in America.
Therefore, we acknowledge this as a human rights issue that demands the power and unconditional support of the President and the Congress of the United States of America and that it can be established by Executive Order of the President of the United states; and,
Therefore, we sign this petition to demand that government of the United States of America immediately form a Task Force, or Commission, whose purpose is formulate how reparations will be made to the descendants of the Africans who were brutally enslaved in this country for centuries, and who were further demoralized and oppressed for another 100+ years of Jim Crow.
Thank you for signing this petition and for encouraging all others to sign it, too.
Jeffrey E. Savage
I just signed the following petition addressed to: Jeffrey E. Savage.
Demand President Obama form Reparations Task Force/Commission
We, the signers of this petition, demand that President Obama immediately issue an Executive Order to form a Presidential Task Force, or Commission, that mirrors the purpose, intent and direction of House Bill, H.R. 40, as it was originally
Without question, reparations are owed and the right to self determination is a human right that have been denied our people.
With this petition, we proudly and enthusiastically stand up for human rights by signing it. Additionally, we are asking that you pass it on to all of your contacts everywhere.
Thank you for signing and supporting this human rights issue.