As the country this year commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans being brought to what was then the outpost of Jamestown in the colony of Virginia, history buffs and historians alike say physical evidence of the brutal trade that built this nation and of the people who fought to end it is being lost to time and neglect.
In a sweeping article, the Washington Post chronicles the challenges of preserving one such story, that of Nat Turner. The revolutionary, or murderer, depending on one’s point of view, led one of the biggest slave revolts in U.S. history in early 1800s slaveholding Virginia.
“A lot of the sites that tell the story have been destroyed,” Norfolk State University historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander told the Post.
Neglect and a denial of the complexities and horrors embedded in the foundation of the nation have “tended to obliterate the presence of African Americans ... as well as eliminating our history of slavery,” Newby-Alexander said.
The irony of that reality in Virginia is especially palpable given the importance of historical preservation to the state’s money-making tourism industry.
Until recently, Virginia “glossed over” the history of slavery that is at its heart. That’s changing, with a museum including the viewpoints of the enslaved opening in Richmond, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate presenting details about the lives of the enslaved.
But, as the Post explains:
... 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.
Such deterioration and neglect is the challenge as well when it comes to preserving the history surrounding the Turner rebellion, which took place in Southampton County in August 1831.
Turner led a group of fellow slaves from farm to farm killing as many white people as they could find. Some 55 white men, women and children were killed over two days before a militia arrived, scattering Turner and his band. Turner escaped for a time before he was captured months later and hanged.
The insurrection sent rage and shockwaves throughout the slaveholding states and white communities in general. As the Post notes, “scores of blacks were murdered in reprisals throughout the South,” and numerous laws were passed further restricting the lives of black people, both slave and free.
In Southampton today, a white man, Rick Francis, is acknowledged to be the most knowledgeable expert in the area of all things Nat Turner.
Francis, the clerk of the county’s circuit court, acknowledges that several of his own ancestors either died by Turner’s hand or just barely escaped, but he says preserving and highlighting the history is important.
As he explained to the Post:
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.
“What we choose to preserve is really a reflection of what we care about,” Justin Reid, director of African American Programs for Virginia Humanities, told the Post.