Making a Home for Black History – The New Yorker/Vinson Cunningham

October 9, 2016

The Diaspora, USA

The vision and the challenges behind a new museum on the National Mall


The building’s design alludes to Yoruba art, from West Africa, and to the filigree ironwork made by American slaves.  [ILLUSTRATION BY VINCENT MAHÉ]

A few years ago, Rex Ellis, the associate director of curatorial affairs for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in September on the Mall in Washington, D.C., made a phone call. Ellis is a natural storyteller, with a voice that mixes congestion and control in a manner reminiscent of Jesse Jackson’s. He’d clearly told the story of the call before, but when I spoke with him this past spring, in his office on an upper floor of the glassy Capital Gallery Building, on Maryland Avenue, he repeated it for me with all the shock and wonder that it warranted.

“A phone call,” he began. “To a young lady by the name of Wendy Porter.” She had e-mailed him, saying that she had Nat Turner’s Bible. Ellis smirked slightly and rolled his eyes. “Well, there are a lot of folk who call and make all kinds of claims. So I said, ‘Mmm-hmm.’ But then she told a little bit about her history, and she mentioned Nathaniel Francis. And I said”—deeper this time, slower—“ ‘Mmm-hmmmm.’ ”

Nathaniel Francis owned the property on which Nat Turner was captured, in October, 1831. There, on Francis’s land, the slave preacher hid, having led a revolt of fellow-slaves that drew its inspiration from the Bible in question and ended in the deaths of at least fifty-five white residents of Southampton County, Virginia. Turner was tried and hanged in the nearby town of Jerusalem. It is not clear to Ellis or to his staff just how Francis came to have Turner’s Bible; later, by searching through library documents and photographs, they learned that his family had held on to it until at least 1900. As if to complete the circle of haunted serendipity, Wendy Porter’s stepfather was related to one of Nathaniel’s descendants, Rick Francis, a prominent member of the Southampton County Historical Society, which owns the sword that Nat Turner had with him when he was captured.

“So,” Ellis said, tracing ecstatic connections on his desk with his fingers, “everything just started to fit together.” He travelled to Virginia Beach to see the Bible. Porter, who was seven or eight months pregnant, greeted him at the door of her home and introduced him to her mother, who took him to the dining room. Porter’s mother went into a closet and pulled down an object wrapped in a thinning dishtowel. She placed it on a table in front of Ellis. Sitting in Washington, Ellis pantomimed the gesture, sliding an invisible book across his desk, to me.

When Ellis unwrapped the Bible at the Porters’, the binding was long gone. What he saw was its first yellowed page, the edges rounded by much use. He turned a few pages, gingerly, then stopped. He looked at the mother. “We only bring it out during family reunions,” she said. “And only when someone asks do we bring it out so that they can see it. Then we wrap it up and put it back in the closet.”

She looked at the Bible. “We thought that this was something—we knew it was important,” she said. “Yes, Ma’am,” Ellis replied. Then she spoke again, as if urged, Ellis said, by some outside force. “It was time for it to leave here,” she told him. Ellis looked me in the eyes when he repeated what she said next: “Because there’s so much blood on it.”

Read the rest of the essay:


SUNDAY, OCTOBER 9, 2016. 12:43 p.m. [GMT]

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