Descendants to discuss legacy of America’s deadliest slave rebellion

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Nate Parker in "The Birth of a Nation" (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Nate Parker in “The Birth of a Nation” (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures)

The past and present will collide on Saturday, 185 years after Nat Turner’s rebellion against slavery in Southampton, Virginia.

Three men — each descended from families of major players in Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion — will come together at 2 p.m. Saturday to discuss the “Real Story of Nat Turner,” according to an event news release.

Panelists at the forum will include Bruce Turner, of Virginia Beach, a descendant of Nat Turner; Rick Francis, a distant nephew of Abraham Lincoln and the great, great, great grandson of Nathaniel Francis, whose family suffered the greatest loss during the slave rebellion of 1831; and Bill Bryant, a distant nephew of Turner’s jailer, Collin Kitchen, the release said.

The program is sponsored by All Together, a Williamsburg-based civic group that aims to bring people together across racial lines, according to the group’s Facebook page.

The discussion will be centered around the recent release of “The Birth of a Nation,” a film based on the story of Nat Turner that opened in theaters in October.

The three men, who have previously come together to discuss the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion, will address the film’s historical accuracy, or lack thereof, and tell the “real” story of the rebellion.

“The movie explores Nat trying to deal with the paradox of slavery,” said Bruce Turner. “It was a thought out plan, and he had deliberate actions. That’s why I say that classifies him as a freedom fighter. It wasn’t just vengeful actions or he just wanted to get revenge. When you want to get revenge, you don’t usually have any goal or objective other than just getting revenge.”

For Francis, who has also seen the movie, the narrative drifted too far from what he sees as the central facts of the rebellion. 

“It’s very, very powerful,” Francis said of the film, which was written, directed and produced by its lead actor, Nate Parker, a native of Norfolk. “I am disappointed that it is not historically accurate, because I think that the story of Nat Turner is just as compelling and has just enough drama by telling the truth as it would be by fictionalizing it.”

On Aug. 21, 1831, Nat Turner began what would turn out to be the deadliest slave rebellion in American history. In a period of 48 hours, Nat Turner and a group of rebel slaves killed more than 50 whites in Southampton, Virginia.

“I wanted Nate Parker to be able to show Nat as a person, not just a revolutionary,” Bruce Turner said of the film. “Parker added his history with preaching and how he was educated, so he did treat him as a person. There were some inconsistencies, but for the most part it was tasteful. There’s some brutal stuff in there. It’s not going to be nice to your sensibilities.”

19th century woodcut depiction of Nat Turner's rebellion from "Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County" published in 1831. (Courtesy Library of Congress)
19th century woodcut depiction of Nat Turner’s rebellion from “Authentic and Impartial Narrative of the Tragical Scene Which Was Witnessed in Southampton County” published in 1831. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

As the county clerk of court for Southampton, Francis presides over the historical record of Nat Turner’s rebellion as his day job. At night, he returns to the Francis family land, where his distant relatives were killed during the insurrection.

“When Nat Turner got going on the 21st of August, my family tree got severely trimmed,” Francis joked.

Some local historians estimate 36 members of the Francis family were killed during the rebellion, but Francis puts it at about 17, he said.

When Francis was young, his father served as president of the local historical society and would take him on the walking tours he led around the family’s estate. Francis said he eventually took over conducting the tours for his father, after his father developed cancer.

“I can’t say it’s a happy family story, but we’ve kept it,” said Francis. “But I’m not really sure where it will go from here. My daughter can’t quite get over the fact that we had slave owners in the family.”

For Bruce Turner’s family, their connection to Nat Turner holds a place of reverence. 

“My grandchildren asked if that was really their ancestor,” he said. “They were amazed.”

Bruce Turner, of Virginia Beach, is a descendant of Nat Turner. (Amy Poulter/SouthsideDaily)
Bruce Turner, of Virginia Beach, is a descendant of Nat Turner. (Amy Poulter/SouthsideDaily)

During Saturday’s forum, the three descendants also plan to relate the historical significance of Nat Turner’s rebellion to current national events.

“In America today, we have problems,” Bryant said. “Recent political campaigns, disputed shootings by police and major cities, and economic tensions have all aggravated racial tensions.”

“It’s a time for healing, and you heal by telling the truth,” he continued. “It’s a story of what happened many years ago that’s still very relevant today, because it’s all about people. We need to be united.”

Stephen Seals, interpretive program development manager for Colonial Williamsburg, will moderate Saturday’s discussion, the release said.

Amid the publicity surrounding the debut of “Birth of a Nation,” Turner and Francis have been featured in recent editions of “60 Minutes” on CBS and “Anderson Cooper 360,” and in a documentary on the National Geographic channel, the release said.

“You would think that the further you got from 1831, the more faint the image would be of the story, but that’s just not the case,” Francis said. “This story from the county which I am from and whose records I am in charge of, this story radiates father than any other part of our history. It resonated globally and had an impact on the entire country, all from Southampton County.”

If you want to go…

Where: The free event will be held at the Lane Auditorium at Colonial Williamsburg’s Bruton Heights Education Center, located at 301 First Street.

When: Saturday Dec. 3 at 2 p.m.

This article was published in partnership with SouthsideDaily, WYDaily’s sister publication.