“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.”
The voices of five men and four women, once held in human bondage, interviewed in Alabama in 1937.Brian Lyman, Montgomery Advertiser
“Today the state of Alabama marks the birthday of Jefferson Davis, who served as president of the Confederate States of America from 1861 to 1865. A state holiday, state offices are closed throughout Alabama. Davis, who at one point owned more than 100 slaves, led a government resting on the principle of white supremacy. The Confederate Constitution contained a provision explicitly prohibiting any law “impairing the right of property in negro slaves,” and his vice president, Alexander Stephens, said the “cornerstone” of the new government “rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.”
Davis was a racist. In a speech to the U.S. Senate in 1860, the then-senator from Mississippi said slavery was “a form of civil government for those who by their nature are not fit to govern themselves,” adding “We recognize the fact of the inferiority stamped upon that race by the Creator, and from cradle to grave, our government, as a civil institution, marks that inferiority.” After his inauguration as president of the Confederacy, Davis said “We recognized the negro as God and God’s Book and God’s laws, in nature, tell us to recognize him. Our inferior, fitted expressly for servitude.”
“From 1936 to 1938, the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal agency, sent workers throughout the South to collect oral histories from survivors of slavery, eventually conducting more than 2,000 interviews, including at least 129 in Alabama. The workers were not necessarily trained interviewers, and scholars have noted that the race of the interviewer often had a major effect on the answers the former slaves gave. But the testimonies preserve the voices of those who experienced a hell that Davis and other white southerners were willing to destroy the country to protect.
Below, the testimonies of nine African Americans held in human bondage, all interviewed in Alabama in 1937. The transcripts have been edited for length and clarity.”
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.”
One reason for my current retrospection is the fine essay by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the June issue of the Atlantic arguing that reparations are deserved and long overdue. He has gathered an amazing array of facts about racism, economics, violence and the role of the U.S. government, implicit and explicit. With pinpoint clarity, Coates has focused a scholarly light that shines into all the dark corners of this shameful chapter in our history.
The Original Deadbeat Dad
Written by: James B. Peterson
“Unless their mothers were raped by their masters/fathers; in that case they would be dogged by the existential tensions of their own miscegenated identities; their sui generis experience with fatherlessness would have been inextricably linked to their condition as human chattel“ — James Braxton Peterson “Racial Redux” (NewBlackMan & Huffington Post)
In the epigraph above I am wrestling with the unchecked irony and impact of certain public comments made by politicians. In this case, then presidential primary candidate Michelle Bachman, fresh off the talking points memo of the moment, suggested that Black families (especially Black children) were somehow better off during slavery because back then . . . (wait for it), Black families were more intact than they are in the Obama era. *Sigh* Although I can imagine that at this point many people can simply tune out these kinds of ignorant comments, for me they reflect just about everything that is wrong with the body politic. Political figures – and I use this term very loosely – exploit history in order to bend the present back on itself. And this comment obscures an even deeper hypocrisy. It is rooted in the Right’s self-professed exclusive claim to traditional family values. In this scenario, right-wing politicians espouse traditional, western, nuclear ideas about family and pass these off as the sine non qua for all human interactions. Never mind their own families; never mind their own behavior, biases, infidelities, and most of all – never mind history.
A couple of years ago, I made my first appearance on the Bill O’Reilly Show (Fox News). It was on the occasion of an extremely violent murder of several school-aged children on school grounds. These murders were horrific and the circumstances surrounding them were mystified by gang lore and the media’s requisite inability to understand the nuances of inner city life. Mr. O’Reilly opened the segment by citing the (oft-cited) statistics on Black fatherlessness – some 70% of African American children are born to single mothers. I remember wondering what that had to do with this particular segment, but for O’Reilly and those who follow the Right’s talking points, Black fatherlessness is the fundamental “problem” with Black people and (simultaneously) the prevailing rationale for all crime in America. I certainly do not want to underestimate the importance of Black fatherlessness here. Parents have important roles to play in the development of children’s lives. Having two parents is a blessing (not necessarily a necessity) and the key to children becoming ‘upstanding’ citizens has more to do with any adults — parents, mothers, fathers, uncles, teachers, etc. — taking a sincere sustained interest in them and their successful maturation into adulthood. That said, Black fatherlessness has been used as a political tool to enhance the public appetite for narratives of Black pathology. And this is always done in a historical vacuum, as if there are no structural (or historical) precedents to these situations; as if there are no biases about the construction of family in the first place.
When we take just a cursory look blackward into the history of African Americans, there are too many narratives of white pathology: systematic rape, legislated oppression, and yes – Black fatherlessness. Slave masters separated Black families, but they also raped Black women and sold their own children – or worse, enslaved them. Let’s just call this white-Black fatherlessness. This was not solely the purview of Presidents and Senators, it was a normative practice amongst white male slave owners for over two centuries. I don’t offer this tidbit of history to justify Black Black fatherlessness, I only make the point to unveil some of the historical ironies inherent in the ways in which Black-Black fatherlessness seems to exist in some socio-political space devoid of the institutions, structures, and yes, HISTORY that predates it and may in some strange way originates it.
James Braxton Peterson (Duke ’93, UPENN 2003) is the Director of Africana Studies and Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University. He has been Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University, a visiting lecturer and preceptor in African American Studies at Princeton University and the Media Coordinator for the Harvard University Hip Hop Archive.