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Daisy Turner's Kin

Daisy Turner's Kin: An African American Family Saga

Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Daisy Turner's Kin
    Book Description:

    A daughter of freed African American slaves, Daisy Turner became a living repository of history. The family narrative entrusted to her--"a well-polished artifact, an heirloom that had been carefully preserved"--began among the Yoruba in West Africa and continued with her own century and more of life. In 1983, folklorist Jane Beck began a series of interviews with Turner, then one hundred years old and still relating four generations of oral history. Beck uses Turner's storytelling to build the Turner family saga, using at its foundation the oft-repeated touchstone stories at the heart of their experiences: the abduction into slavery of Turner's African ancestors; Daisy's father Alec Turner learning to read; his return as a soldier to his former plantation to kill the overseer; and Daisy's childhood stand against racism. Other stories re-create enslavement and her father's life in Vermont--in short, the range of life events large and small, transmitted by means so alive as to include voice inflections. Beck, at the same time, weaves in historical research and offers a folklorist's perspective on oral history and the hazards--and uses--of memory.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09728-7
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION. The Turner Narrative and Memory
    (pp. 1-10)

    Alexander “Alec” Turner (1845–1923), born a slave on the Jack Gouldin plantation alongside the Rappahannock River near Port Royal, Virginia, wanted his family to know its roots. Every night after dinner, he told them stories of their heritage. These became the Turner family narrative, a prized legacy. Daisy (1883–1988), Alec’s daughter, drank in these anecdotes and learned many word for word. In 1983, I was fortunate enough to meet Daisy and spend the next three years recording her stories.

    The Turner saga is compelling. It envelops a period in American history that has shaped our culture and helps...

  5. CHAPTER 1 Meeting Daisy
    (pp. 11-22)

    The phone rang and rang and rang. I knew that the person I wanted to speak with was one hundred years old and that it might take her awhile to get to the phone. I pictured her reaching for the receiver and willed her to answer. I held on, waiting for the moment to present my case, hope eroding. Resignedly, I put down the phone, swallowing my disappointment.

    Margaret MacArther, a well-known folk singer and song collector from Marlboro, Vermont, had sent me a clipping in the summer of 1983 about Daisy Turner, a daughter of former slaves who was...

  6. CHAPTER 2 African Roots
    (pp. 23-40)

    The origins of the Turner legacy remain cloaked in the opaqueness of time, and the exact location of the wrecked vessel that brought Daisy’s English great-grandmother into the world of her African great-grandfather cannot be pinpointed. However, based on Daisy’s stories and my research, as well as my own maritime experiences, I formed a vivid image of the incident. One does not spend thirty years pondering a narrative without being drawn into it.

    The vessel was sailing easily along an endless expanse of sand on the West African coast known as the Bight of Benin. The midday sun shone strong...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Jack Gouldin and Robert Berkeley
    (pp. 41-61)

    Jack Gouldin was in his mid-forties when he first encountered Robert. Who was this man who became such a dominant figure in the lives of Robert and his son Alec? Both father and son spoke of Gouldin as wealthy, keeping “high-tone slavery” (meaning he did not like to whip his bondsmen), being “soft spoken” and a passionate “sporting man” who loved cockfighting, boxing, horse racing, and foxhunting.

    Without the Turner narrative, we would know very little about Jack Gouldin. He left no collection of letters or plantation records, and there were no family stories that came down through the generations,...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Plantation Life
    (pp. 62-83)

    By the time Alec Turner was born in 1845, Jack Gouldin was fifty-eight years old and had become one of the richest landowners in Caroline County, if not a member of the aristocracy. Gouldin seemed old to Alec,¹ and indeed Alec’s view of the plantation was from youthful eyes; nevertheless, he clearly absorbed the full import of his lot as an enslaved individual and gradually determined to take action to free himself.

    Daisy told me repeatedly that Jack Gouldin owned twelve square miles on the Rappahannock River, and perhaps this is what Gouldin himself said. It certainly makes the statement...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Civil War
    (pp. 84-107)

    This foray across the Rappahannock River to a rebel picket post proved to be what Alec considered the most significant experience of his life: not only was it his first exploit as a free man, but it also represented his triumph over slavery.¹ No wonder he told the story many times to family and friends. It is natural that such an important event would take on larger than life dimensions over time for Alec, but the story is still recognizable when related by a Union cavalry chaplain. Transformed from a sixteen-year-old slave boy to a free man, literally by crossing...

  10. CHAPTER 6 Postwar
    (pp. 108-128)

    Once in Washington, Alec would have found refuge in one of the Freedman’s Bureau camps. The city was filled with over sixteen thousand refugees, who, like Alec, were full of optimism but facing a sobering reality and a deep uncertainty as to what the future held.¹ Black refugees flocked to the city, inundating the facilities set up for them at Freedman’s Village in Arlington. These camps intensified the separatism and cultural marginality that came with emancipation.

    Alec was resourceful, but the conditions were miserable, including subsistence living, overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, and rampant disease.² Most freedmen were destitute and desperately in...

  11. CHAPTER 7 Vermont
    (pp. 129-154)

    In 1873, Grafton, Vermont, was considered a thriving town, despite its declining population of about one thousand.¹ Two branches of the Saxtons River join and wind through the village, at that time providing power for a number of mills in the district known as Mechanicsville. Among them was Charles White’s sawmill and millpond. In the spring, when the water was high, the mill ran night and day.²

    Most of the residents were farmers, working small, subsistence farms, following the rhythm of the seasons. By the time of the Civil War, these small farms began to decline. With the allure of...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Journey’s End
    (pp. 155-191)

    Daisy was three years old when the family moved into the new house. She suffered from rickets, caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, resulting in a softening of her bones, which was particularly noticeable in her legs and left her unable to walk.¹ “I was fast and quick in talking… but I wasn’t able to pull [myself] up.”² Her father, always practical and creative, built a small stool, with two handles on top, that she could push to help her learn to walk. The kitchen was the nerve center of the new house, and as her mother cooked, Daisy...

  13. CHAPTER 9 Daisy’s Last Years
    (pp. 192-208)

    Alec was deeply mourned by his family, but especially by his wife, Sally. She lived ten more years and “grieved every day. She mourned my father something terrible.”¹ Alec was a dynamic force, central in family life, but Sally was his lifelong partner, sharing his dreams and his burdens. Together they had left slavery behind them, borne the struggle to shape a homestead out of the wilderness, and built a new life sustained by deep faith and strong family bonds. They had moved a great distance from Virginia, both physically and symbolically, putting to use many skills learned while enslaved...

    (pp. 209-218)

    In 2012, I was on Vermont Public Radio’sVermont Editionwith Jane Lindholm during Black History Month, talking about the Turners. After the program, I received an email: “I have just looked at the stats on the population at Grafton. The portion that is African American is 0.17%. Since the population is 606, that means there are approximately 2 Black people living there NOW. What happened to the Turners?”

    The answer is that over the years the Turners who remained in Vermont have intermarried with the local white population and have blended into the community.¹ Daisy herself commented on this...

    (pp. 219-225)
  16. APPENDIX. Turner Family Genealogical Chart
    (pp. 226-228)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 229-268)
    (pp. 269-278)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 279-296)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-300)