The small, fragile Bible sat on the top shelf of a dining room closet wrapped in an old cotton dish towel until Wendy Creekmore-Porter pulled it out for historian Rex Ellis.
“We don’t bring it out much,” Barbara Jean Person, Creekmore-Porter’s mother, told him.
“Then I remember her saying, ‘Because there’s so much blood on it,’ ” recalls Ellis, the associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ellis slowly removed the towel and looked for blood. He quickly realized the statement was figurative.
The slightly larger than pocket-size Bible had been in Porter’s family for three generations. Historians think that Nat Turner, a minister and enslaved field hand, was holding it when he was captured two months after leading a rebellion against slaveholders in Southampton County, Va.
The 1831 slave revolt was the bloodiest in U.S. history. It left at least 55 white Virginians dead, including members of the Person family, and was followed by angry retribution. After the revolt, about 200 blacks were killed — some beheaded and their heads put on roadside stakes as a gruesome warning.
In 1912, Turner’s Bible was given to a member of the Person family by local officials who wanted to turn it over to a family affected by the revolt. The book had been one of the pieces of evidence from Turner’s 1831 trial. It was passed down to Creekmore-Porter’s stepfather, Maurice Person, whose great-grandmother, Lavinia Francis, was hidden by house slaves during the rebellion and survived.
Creekmore-Porter, who teaches women’s studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, said she wanted the Bible to be in a place that “preserved it and honored it.” After the PBS series “Antiques Roadshow” declined to appraise the Bible during a taping nearby, Creekmore-Porter offered it to the African American Museum, where archivists compared markings to photos of a Bible believed to have belonged to Turner and deemed it to be the same.
Its covers are missing. Its pages are yellowed. In some places, there are watermarks and mold. But now the Bible has a new life: as the focal point of the museum’s Slavery and Freedom exhibit.
Item: Nat Turner’s Bible
Donors: Maurice Person and Noah and Brooke Porter of Virginia Beach
Museum exhibition: Slavery and Freedom
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