For a century, the descendants of one of Virginia’s oldest families have kept a Bible that connected them to Nat Turner, the slave who led the bloodiest slave revolt in American history.
Maurice Person, a descendant of people who were killed during the Turner rebellion, and his stepdaughter, Wendy Porter, decided to give the small Bible to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to break ground Wednesday on the Mall.
“It didn’t have the home it deserved. It needed to be in a place where it could be seen,” Porter said.
Members of Person’s family and the Francis family were among the estimated 55 white Virginians killed by Turner and his followers. One of the family members, Lavinia Francis, was hidden by the Francises’ house slaves.
The gift launched an investigation by museum experts to pinpoint the Bible’s origins. They knew its provenance — kept in the courthouse after Turner’s trial and execution in 1831.
When Virginia’s Southampton County Courthouse was being renovated in 1912, an official asked the Person family whether it wanted Turner’s Bible. Person’s father, Walter, accepted the book and displayed it on the family piano for many years. Later, the family put it in a safe-deposit box.
“This is about as rare a gift as it gets,” said Lonnie Bunch, director of the museum. “The Nat Turner rebellion is probably the most significant uprising in American history. To have something tied to the insurrection is unbelievable, and this one is important on so many levels. To have something from Turner is significant and iconic.”
Even with the ownership clear, the museum did its due diligence. A photograph of the Bible, identified as Turner’s, was taken in 1900 and is part of the archives at the University of Virginia. An affidavit in 1969 by Harriet E. Francis, a descendant of Lavinia Francis, is also part of the university archives.
Nora Lockshin, a paper conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, examined the paper, leather, ink and arrangement of the pages. The book, which is a little larger than pocket-size, is missing both covers, part of its spine and one chapter. Its pages are yellowed, and there are watermarks and mold. Because of its age, it cannot be opened flat.
“The paper is in good shape, and it is a good, strong rag paper,” Lockshin said. She enhanced the 1900 photograph, matching the page in the photo to a page in the book. “It matched the pattern of stains.”
With the Turner Bible, Bunch said, the museum will tell many stories about the resistance to slavery and the compassion of slaves.
After the Turner rebellion, retribution was swift. About 200 blacks were killed in Virginia and neighboring states. Many blacks were beheaded, and their heads erected along a road as a warning.
“This puts an end to the argument that slavery is good, that the slaves were happy,” Bunch said. “And it leads to more brutality in the South and a hardening of the Southern desire to protect its way of life.”
Turner, who was born in 1800, was taught to read and write, and spoke about his deep reading of the Bible, especially the Book of Revelations. That part of the book is missing.
The museum has also collected two bricks from the chimney where the young Francis was hidden. “Our generation wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the house slaves,” Porter said.
The significance of the Bible has always been understood by the family, Porter said. “Nat Turner murdered so many members of my family. But we never saw it as something that belonged to one person. We didn’t feel we were the keepers. I think Nat Turner would have wanted his Bible to rest in Washington.”