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The Godly Heritage Behind the National Museum of African American History

09-24-2016
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WASHINGTON - Thousands of people are expected to attend the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. this weekend. All 28,500 tickets for the event sold out in less than hour when they went on sale this summer.

The museum will highlight the journey from slavery to freedom -- paved, in large part, by faith.

Consequently, many of the exhibits will reflect the role of religion, such as a Harriet Tubman's book of hymns, the piano of Thomas Dorsey, considered the father of gospel music, and a Bible belonging to Nat Turner.

The Freedom Bell, believed to be the bell for the first black Baptist church established by African Americans, will make the journey from Williamsburg, Va. to National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Click play to learn the church's history. 

 

The small frayed-edged Bible symbolizes the strange and unlikely bond between the new museum and a Virginia family that founded an old country church where Turner is believed to have been baptized.

The resulting relationship sheds insight on how potentially to deal with the growing racial tension in America today.

Persons United Methodist Church

Persons United Methodist Church sits on a lonely, dusty road in Southampton County, Virginia - about an hour south of Richmond.

Average attendance is less than 20, causing the doors to open only two Sundays a month.

Yet, the church is still going strong. Last Sunday, dozens of people filled the pews to celebrate its 178th anniversary.

"My ancestors were founding members of the church," said Mark Person, organizer of the anniversary and descendant of the church founder. "We go back a few years."

Within the last decade, Persons UMC has been recognized by Virginia's governor and President Barack Obama. Even the Queen of England acknowledged their shared connection to the Church of England, sending her regards in a letter by way of her lady-in-waiting.

Now, the church's reputation is sure to grow as people learn about its connection to the new museum honoring black history.

Nat Turner

The church has historical significance tied to Turner, an educated slave who led a failed rebellion against white slave owners.

Turner, described as deeply religious, was believed to be baptized in a nearby millpond owned by the same family who founded Persons United Methodist Church.

By 1831, Turner would lead the largest and bloodiest slave insurrection in America. Some of his victims included the Persons, who a few years earlier allowed him to conduct a baptism on their property.

Mark Person recalls hearing about Turner as a child.

"It was talked about some, but not a whole lot," Person explained. "As I got older and we got a little more history from the elders, they said there was an insurrection of 1831."

Turner's 'Prophetic' Revolt?

Turner was a powerful speaker and often called "The Prophet" because he claimed he received visions from God. One of those visions prompted him to lead the deadly revolt.

Person's great, great-uncle, Salathial Francis, was among the 60 or so people killed. Men, women, and even young children died at the hands of slaves who were determined to seize their freedom - no matter the cost.

But two sympathetic slaves helped to save Person's great, great-grandmother, Lavinia Francis. Eight months pregnant at the time, they hid her away in a closet.

"The reality of it is if it hadn't been for (them) that night, I wouldn't be telling the story," Person reflected.

White militias struck back quickly to put down the rebellion and, in turn, killed 200 blacks.

Turner surrendered two months later, caught in a foxhole with only a sword and a Bible. The Bible, which eventually was passed down to the Persons, had been with the family since 1912.

After nearly a hundred years of safekeeping, the family learned about plans for the new museum and decided to donate the Bible so more people could see it.

"It never came up that they'd want to make a dollar off of it," he said. "It is just where it belongs."

A Godly Lesson from the Past

Although painful, Person believes there are important lessons for all of us to learn from the past.

"I think it shows God still has his hand on everything," Persons explained. "The slaves went through a lot. It had to be dehumanizing: families were split up, children as slaves - it breaks your heart."

"I've met some people who said they equate the Nat Turner uprising to 'Give me liberty or give me death,' he reflected. "It makes you re-evaluate it. The insurrection was horrible, but there were a lot of other people that were slain."

Person speaks about his family history at college campuses. He even had a chance to meet some of Turner's descendents.

He believes his experiences and open mind helped to open the door to reconciliation. That's also a major goal of the new Smithsonian museum.

"Race and reconciliation is part of what our hope is," said Dr. Rex Ellis, an associate director with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

"It is my belief that everyone who visits the museum will come out of it different and better than when they went in," he said.

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