‘This is history:’ Descendant of Nat Turner’s owners discusses historical significance of slave rebellion

'This is history:' Descendant of Nat Turner’s owners discusses historical significance of slave rebellion

Juneteenth, the holiday that’s been referred to as America’s second Independence Day, commemorates when the last group of enslaved people in Texas learned they were officially free.

Decades before the Civil War ended slavery, there were significant revolts and uprisings by slaves who fought for their freedom. One of the most notable slave revolts happened in 1831: they called it Nat Turner’s Rebellion, and it took place right here in our backyard in Southampton County, Virginia.

Books, films, and documentaries portray Turner as a freedom fighter, or a killer with a cause.

But are the movies and stories about Turner historically accurate? News 3 anchor Barbara Ciara sat down Norfolk State University history professor Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, who reflected on Turner’s life.

“I think [Turner’s story] is a very human story, and it’s a very American story,” said Norfolk State University history professor Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander. “I think this is a man who is fighting for the freedom of himself, his family and those people willing to join him.”

Records chronicle Turner’s place in history as a preacher who was an avid reader of the Bible. He spoke of visions from God as a signal to organize a revolt.

Turner’s rebellion against bondage was one of the largest slave uprisings ever to take place in the United States. In 1831, Turner and his men moved from house to house in Southampton County and executed more than 50 white people in their wake, including children who, in some cases, were the legal owners of human property.

“I usually say, let’s put this in context: Those children were going to be the inheritors of enslaved people. What he wanted to do was to wipe out all of the slaveholders in Southampton County,” Dr. Newby-Alexander explained.

Barbara spoke with another person who provided some historical insight into Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Rick Francis is the Clerk of Court in Southampton County. He has a unique tie to the rebellion: he is a descendant of the family that owned Nat Turner.

He said the family that owned Nat Turner at the time of the rebellion would have included his great-great aunt Sally Francis.

“I am only [here today] as a result of three slaves who acted independently of each other,” Francis explained.

The photo below is the re-created residence of Rick’s great-great grandparents Nathaniel and Luvenia. Rick’s brother rebuilt it, using some of the wood from the original structure.


Francis is now a keeper of the history of both his family and the county. He says guarding that history is a task his father passed on to him.

He showed Barbara documents that recorded history in real-time, including court records that have been intact in the county since 1749.

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Barbara Ciara and Rick Francis look over historical documents, including court records that were made when Nat Turner was condemned to death.

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Rick Francis with another piece of history: Nat Turner’s sword. The sword is kept by the Historical Society.

As Clerk of the Court, he can reach out and touch the actual documents that condemned Nat Turner to death following his trial.

Barbara asked Francis for his thoughts as he reflected back on the rebellion.

“I cannot condemn Nat Turner even though he and his group took out about 17 members of my family tree,” said Francis.

Francis further explained, “I think, [if] you ask any white man or white woman if they were truthful with their response, they would say that, ‘I would be dammed if they would hold me in bondage.'”

Black people accused of participating in Nat Turner’s Rebellion were executed, and more than 200 others who were not involved in the revolt were beaten and killed by angry mobs or white militias.

Now looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, Barbara asked Francis: what is the legacy of this land that witnessed so much history, and what have we learned from the past?

“I would think we’ve learned how to be better people, but I’m not so sure,” said Francis.

With emotion, Francis said he hopes people can learn from past events.

“This is history, and it should make us better people,” said Francis.

The City of Franklin has partnered with the Turner family, who have organized a tour of five stops tracing the path of the Nat Turner Rebellion. Each stop will feature a Turner descendant sharing their oral history. For more information on the tours, which will run from June 17 – 19, click .

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