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Nat Turner links black, white George Wythe High alumni

3/4/2017, 11:44 a.m.
Nat Turner, who led one of the bloodiest rebellions of enslaved people in history, has connected the members of the ...
Mark Person makes a presentation during the George Wythe High School Class of 1974 Black History Month Breakfast Program last Saturday at Second Baptist Church in South Side. Below, Photo by Sandra Sellars

By Leah Hobbs

Nat Turner, who led one of the bloodiest rebellions of enslaved people in history, has connected the members of the George Wythe High School Class of 1974 in a unique way.

The Rev. Torlecia Bates, who spoke at last Saturday’s event at Second Baptist Church in South Side, is a descendant of Nat Turner. Her father is a member of the George Wythe High School Class of 1974.

The Rev. Torlecia Bates, who spoke at last Saturday’s event at Second Baptist Church in South Side, is a descendant of Nat Turner. Her father is a member of the George Wythe High School Class of 1974.

At a Black History Month Breakfast Program on Saturday at Second Baptist Church in South Side, the George Wythe class presented two speakers who personify the entwined history of African-Americans and white people in Virginia.

In this case, it was a descendant of Mr. Turner, a slave in Southampton County, and a descendant of white slave owners in the county who wound up generations later with Mr. Turner’s Bible.

The Rev. Torlecia Bates, a Turner descendant was raised in Southampton County. Her father, Torris Brooks, who didn’t attend the event, is a member of the Class of 1974 of Richmond’s George Wythe High School.

Mark Person, whose relatives donated Mr. Turner’s Bible to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2010, also graduated in the George Wythe Class of 1974.

They shared their thoughts and stories with an audience of about 100 people at the breakfast program.

When a Southampton County church refused to baptize Mr. Turner, the Person family allowed Mr. Turner to be baptized at Person’s Mill Pond, located on the family’s church property, Mr. Person recounted.

In 1831, Mr. Turner led a rebellion in which about 55 white people were killed over three days. Among the dead were some of Mr. Person’s ancestors, but his great-great grandmother, 19-year-old Lavinia Francis who was pregnant at the time, was saved by Red Nelson and other slaves who hid her.

“If it weren’t for the slaves, we would not be here today,” Mr. Person said.

Long before the rebellion, Mr. Turner, who was able to read and write, was given a Bible. It became a significant possession of his as he became a preacher. Passages also served as his inspiration for the rebellion, according to historical accounts.

Once the rebellion was suppressed, Mr. Turner hid for two months. He was found with his Bible and a sword, Mr. Person said.

Evelyn Hawkins, a retired John Marshall High School librarian, shows the current edition of National Geographic magazine and the skull now being analyzed at the Smithsonian. Mrs. Hawkins' family now owns the  Southampton County farm where Nat Turner was captured after the enslaved people’s uprising in 1831.

Evelyn Hawkins, a retired John Marshall High School librarian, shows the current edition of National Geographic magazine and the skull now being analyzed at the Smithsonian. Mrs. Hawkins' family now owns the Southampton County farm where Nat Turner was captured after the enslaved people’s uprising in 1831.

After his trial and subsequent hanging, the Bible was kept in the Southampton County courthouse until the court turned it over to the Person family in 1912. The family kept the Bible in their home, Mr. Person said, and passed it down through the generations.

With the opening of the new museum in Washington, the Person family decided to donate it to the museum. The family, he said, believed that such a significant piece of history needed to be preserved and displayed for the public and the Smithsonian was the best place for it.

Evelyn Hawkins, a retired librarian from John Marshall High School who has ties to another significant relic possibly connected to Nat Turner, also spoke.

Last fall, Mrs. Hawkins' relatives were given a skull believed to be that of Mr. Turner, who was captured on a Southampton County farm her family now owns. Her great-great-grandmothers were born as slaves on the farm. Her grandfather, she said, later purchased the farm from the Musgrave family. It has now been in her family for 101 years.