Recently, I was asked to speak to the History homeschool class regarding the Nat Turner rebellion. The night before my lesson, I realized the lesson was not so much about slavery, and one slave’s rebellion, but about a family who struggled with a generational sin. In lieu of Martin Luther King’s birthday, I decided to post this lesson on my blog.
Nat Turner was a slave owned by a man named Benjamin Turner. My paternal grandmother was a Turner. The Turners were wealthy plantation owners in the South Hampton area of Virginia. My great, great, great, grandfather himself, owned 99 slaves.
His brother Benjamin Chapman Turner, stood in the crowd at a slave auction. Nat’s mother at the tender age of six years old, stood clutching her mother’s hand on the auction block, and Benjamin Turner purchased them. Nat’s mother married another slave on the Turner plantation, who after Nat was born, ran away. It was said, that Nat Turner was so intelligent, he was no good to Benjamin in the fields, so he allowed his son Samuel to teach Nat to read and write, and religious studies. He also, assigned him the duty of preaching to the slaves on the plantation every Sunday.
Nat had a peculiar birthmark on his head and chest, and his mother told him he was stamped a prophet by God. Repeatedly, he was told how special he was, because he could pick up his studies so quickly. So, as Nat grew, he frequently fasted, prayed, and studied.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Turner fell on hard times. In 1831, he sold Nat Turner to Joseph Travis, who owned a neighboring plantation. In Nat’s own words, both “masters” were kind to him. Yet, one night, on the Travis plantation Nat witnessed a lunar eclipse, he interpreted this eclipse to be a black hand covering the white of the moon, a sign from God that Nat was chosen to wipe out slavery. Another day while working outside, he saw a green ash cloud covering the sun. Scientifically explained, there was a Mt. St. Helens eruption, which left an ash cloud, but Nat saw it as a sign from God.
On a horrific night in August of 1831, Nat Turner and seven other male slaves attacked the Travis family with hatchets, axes, and wooden fence posts, while they slept. They killed the entire family, before traveling by foot from plantation to plantation killing all in the house, including women and children, and enlisting slaves to join in the rebellion. It was recorded by Nat Turner’s confession, when they emerged from one of the houses, they heard a baby crying upstairs in the crib. They returned and killed the infant with an axe. In all, 56 white people were killed and 75 slaves had participated in the revolt.
By the grace of God, our ancestors slept peacefully that night, though their plantations sprawled in the same are of Virginia.
A militia of 3,000 men set out to end this rebellion, and Nat Turner was captured along with 56 others who took part. Benjamin Turner was criticized for educating his slaves, and Nat Turner was found guilty for his crimes. He was beaten, hung, skinned, and quartered. The Nat Turner rebellion created a frenzy, where angry white mobs killed a total of 100 innocent slaves.
This event brought about harsher punishments to rebellious slaves, and the enforcements of laws regarding the education of slaves by the slave owners. It also, stirred up heat between the north and the south over the issue of slavery.
After the Civil War, my ancestors paid a great price for owning slaves. Two years after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant my grandmother clutched her rifle in the doorway, while watching a beggar approach her house. When he reached the doorstep, she realized he was no beggar, but her husband. The war was over, but my wealthy grandfather returned disheveled and starved, to find his wife living in one of the slave huts. She had lost the big house and land due to the high taxes imposed on the south.
Although my ancestors paid the penance for the generational sin of slavery, the sin of racism snaked quietly down through remaining generations, eventually inhabiting my father’s heart. Many of you have already read this, but there is no better way to explain how my father extracted this sin, than to share an article my father I wrote together, called “He Said...She Said...”
He Said...She Said...
I was raised in an era when children were taught to respect their elders, saying “yes sir” and “no ma’am” to every adult...every adult, except black adults. As a small boy, I once addressed a black lady with “yes ma’am” and was later scolded by my elders. They instructed me never say that to a “colored person.” Upon asking why, they answered, “you just don’t.”
Everything was segregated then, from the black and white drinking fountains, to the restaurants and schools. Blacks sitting in the back of the bus was the norm. An age when congregations understood the words, “love thy neighbor,” to mean “love thy white neighbor.” Hate, bigotry, and prejudice abounded. From youth, our hears were ingrained with this ideology.
Like so many people at that time, I too was prejudiced, so much so, I refused sleeping in the same motel with a black family. Looking back, I’m not proud of this chapter in my life, but this is the reality of who I was.
I knew the line we weren’t to cross, like the train tracks running through our small town, splitting “colored town” from “white town.” The gulf not only ran through town, but hung heavily in our churches as well. A dark veil preventing those who loved God, from feeling God’s unconditional love for others.
One Sunday, a dark- skinned Indian man and his white wife visited our church. Once the service was over, my father greeted them, and I took notice. When it was time to leave, I jumped into the back seat, and leaned in between my parents.
“Daddy, you said black people can’t marry white people,” I said.
My mother glanced back at me. “Honey, he’s not black, he’s Indian.”
“What’s the difference, he’s dark skinned?”
She started to answer, but my father interjected.
“It’s wrong for anyone to marry outside their race,” he explained. “It’s not God’s plan or He would have made everyone the same color.”
“But you were nice to them.”
“Once they’re married,” he shrugged, “they’re married.”
My oldest daughter Tammy moved to Florida for a job opportunity. One night in November, over the phone, she explained she ate Thanksgiving dinner with a black family, invited by their son Jay. I blew my top.
“Don’t you ever see him again!” I yelled. “No coffees, no lunch breaks, no contact at all. I forbid it! This is for the best.”
Months went by and I heard nothing more about Jay.
I’m ashamed to admit, I was unkind to Jay upon meeting him. His first attempt to invite me to dinner gained rejection. I tried to push him away. Where I come from you don’t date outside your race, religion, or political affiliation, but when alone in a strange town, and eight hundred miles away from home, you begin to see outside the bubble you’re born in.
Tammy flew home for a visit, and as always, we had a wonderful time together. When it was time for her to leave, I sadly watched her plane veer down the runway back to Florida. When I returned from the airport, my wife informed me she found a letter my daughter left behind. A heavy dread came over me, as I backed into my chair. I examined the envelop in my hand. A father has an intuition when it comes to his daughter. I knew what was in the letter.
I left my engagement announcement in a letter. I remember the smell of my father’s shirt that day, when he hugged me goodbye. I didn’t know if he would ever speak to me again. As my plane turned onto the runway, I looked back to see his silhouette waving through the window, and I cried.
Every bitter emotion filled the fibers of my mind and body. An older family member advised me to disown her...count her as dead. He went on to say, “Have you seen mixed children? They have yellow eyes.” That criticism was the last thing I needed to hear. My heart was broken and filling with disappointment, shame, and anger. Maybe he could disown his daughter, but I could not! I loved her, and needed time to work things out. Many sleepless nights followed. I spoke with my pastor and friends to no avail. I was still in turmoil.
I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. I started to have abdominal pains, which landed me in the hospital one night. I repented for living a lie, while wearing down the carpet with my pacing. I waited and waited for the phone to ring.
Not long after the letter, I purchased new tires, and while waiting for their installation, I sat in the lobby. There, I saw Mr. Goodman, a black man I’ve known for years. I looked over at him and prayed, “Lord, can you show me how to love this man?” There was no vision or bolt of lightening, but he did answer my prayer, and I can testify God went to work on me. He cleansed my heart and lifted a heavy weight from my mind. If I had heeded the advice of family, I’d have missed many good times, and so many blessings.
I made one mistake...I warned Daddy. I told him Jay planned to officially ask for his blessing.
“You mean today?” He said.
“Yes, today.” I nodded for emphasis.
Daddy started avoiding, and Jay started pursuing, to the point where Momma got involved, and had a “word” with him. Three days later, an exasperated Jay trapped him during a football game, the one thing my father sat still for that weekend. Reluctantly, he gave his blessing, and it was like the heavens opened and the angels sang. We were blessed!
The wedding plans began the next day. Jay picked the date, the venue, and reserved the hotel rooms. In less than three months, we were to be married, before Daddy changed his mind.
At our wedding, Daddy stood and gave me away with the words, “Her mother and I.” I looked back at them and whispered my thanks. We were one flesh, no matter what the color.
After the reception’s father daughter dance to the “Twist”, Daddy scooped Jay up for a father-son in law dance ballroom style...for equality’s sake. As you can imagine, our guests found their antics hysterical. The dark veil was torn.
Tammy and Jay have been married for almost 13 years. As her father, there is a deep satisfaction in watching the happiness of my daughter. She’s blessed with a good husband, who treats her like a queen. I am also blessed with three beautiful grandsons, whose dark eyes light up, when they see their Granddad and Nana. They shower us with hugs and kisses.
After the birth of my first son, my father came to see him. He held him in his arms by our pool. The sunlight shimmered through his light newborn hair.
“You know, I can’t tell which one of you he looks like,” he said. “I think my grandson’s Italian.”
“He’s a mixture of us all,” Jay replied.
Three boys later, I recognize God’s handiwork. I imagine once we exchanged our vows, God released a sigh in His heavens and said, “It is good,” just as He does any union He orchestrates. Still, what amazes me most is God loved my father so much, He took one of his biggest fears and made it a blessing. God is good.
There are some who say nothing has changed between the races. I say they are wrong. I have changed, and I choose to believe I am not the only one. I believe God has erased bigotry from the hearts of millions across this nation. When I look back to how far I have come, I am slapped by the irony that I, the great, great, grandson of a plantation owner, who owned 99 slaves, has three grandchildren from a bi-racial marriage. Hate crime laws, race legislation, or the right politician in office will never change a man’s heart. There is only one who can alter the heart of man. All we need to do is allow it, by practicing what my daughter teaches her children- to truly love is to love with a colorblind heart.