Descendants disagree about 1831 slave revolt

Descendants on opposite sides of Nat Turner's slave rebellion are united by a love of history -- but disagree about Turner

Was Nat Turner a hero? Depends on whose descendants you ask.

On assignment for 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper went to Southampton County, Virginia, to the place where Turner’s bloody rebellion took place in 1831, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 60 white people -- and the deaths of untold numbers of slaves and free African-Americans. The rebellion is the subject of a new movie, “The Birth of a Nation” by writer, director, and star, Nate Parker, whose own troubled past has been making headlines.

From the film “The Birth of Nation” Fox Searchlight

But Anderson Cooper and producer Keith Sharman didn’t want their 60 Minutes story to focus solely on the troubles of the movie’s director. “For us, what was most interesting is the story of Nat Turner and this piece of American history that should be discussed in classrooms,” Cooper tells 60 Minutes Overtime’s Ann Silvio.

“To fight something which is so unjust, what is justifiable?”

“I think the question of how should history view Nat Turner is an important one,” says Cooper. “To fight something which is so unjust, what is justifiable? And what role does violence play in that?”

While reporting in Virginia, Cooper posed those questions to two men, Bruce Turner and Rick Francis, whose ancestors were on opposite sides of the 1831 rebellion. The remarkable joint interview is featured on this week’s 60 Minutes Overtime web show (watch in the player above).

Rick Francis, left, and Bruce Turner CBS News

Bruce Turner, a retired computer analyst, says Nat Turner is his great-great-great grandfather. Rick Francis, county Clerk of Southhampton County, is a descendant of a white slave-owning family that sustained significant losses in Turner’s revolt. Francis says at least 17 of his family members were killed during the rebellion, though he thinks the number could be higher.

Both Turner and Francis are avid students of history, who have researched their own families as well as the historical record of the rebellion. Anderson Cooper put the question to them both: Is Nat Turner a hero?

“Yes, he is,” says Bruce Turner, because “he saw an opportunity to try to correct something that was an extremely bad evil.” He believes Nat Turner was a freedom-fighter who started a movement that helped end the institution of slavery. “Prior to the insurrection, slave owners actually believed that the slaves were happy in their condition,” he says. “Nat Turner changed that.”

Rick Francis is no defender of the “horrible” institution practiced by his forebears, but he does not see Nat Turner as a heroic figure. Francis questions whether a desire to end slavery is what motivated Turner to kill. He also points out that Nat Turner and his followers killed many women and children.

“They were a means to an end,” says Bruce Turner. ‘Women were slave owners. Children were slave owners.”

Although the two descendants disagree about the 1831 rebellion, there was no animosity in the room during the discussion, says Cooper. “They’re genuinely friends,” he says. “I think they both find this history fascinating.”  

“I don’t claim the sinners or the saints in my ancestry,” says Cooper.

These kinds of conversations are good ones to have, says Cooper, citing his own willingness to explore the darker chapters of the Cooper family past when he was featured on the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

With cameras rolling, Gates broke the news to Cooper that his fourth great grandfather on his father’s side of the family, Burwell Boykin, owned 12 enslaved people. What’s more, one of Boykin’s slaves murdered him with a farm tool.

Amazed, Cooper told Gates that he had little sympathy for his slave-owning relative. “I said, ‘Look, I think he got what was comin’ to him’.”

“I don’t claim the sinners or the saints in my ancestry,” says Cooper. “But it’s an interesting part of American history, and I think we all have that patchwork of good and bad. We all have heroes and villains in our family tree.”

The video above was produced by Ann Silvio and Lisa Orlando, and edited by Lisa Orlando.