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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

An Emotional Journey to the African American History Museum

By Brendan O'Hallarn

WASHINGTON - Montae Taylor was one of the few people on the bus who had already been to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. The junior didn't say a word about his previous visit to any of the 60 Old Dominion University students, staff or faculty members on the field trip to the museum Feb. 18.

"I didn't tell them anything about what to expect," said Taylor, who is majoring in criminal justice and sociology. "I wanted them to experience it for themselves."

But he did tell the trip's organizers about an idea he had to make the visit more meaningful.

Twice, Taylor has taken classes with Wendy Porter, adjunct instructor in women's studies. He had heard that Porter's family had donated to the museum a Bible owned by Nat Turner, who was executed after leading a slave rebellion in southeastern Virginia in 1831.

When Taylor learned about the trip through the ODU NAACP, he contacted the University's Office of Intercultural Relations and suggested Porter lead part of it.

"It's such an interesting story to talk about, and I felt like Professor Porter should share in this experience as well," he said. She did, and the stop at the Bible exhibit proved one of the emotional highlights of the visit, both for the students and Porter.

The 55 ODU students, wearing identical blue T-shirts with the slogan "A people's journey; a nation's story," attended the new Smithsonian museum as part of the University's Black History Month observance. They were chosen from more than 500 applicants based on essays that they had written.

The trip was sponsored by ODU's Office of Intercultural Relations; Programs All Weekend of ODU's Office of Leadership and Student Involvement; the ODU Women's Center, and Housing and Residence Life.

The students chatted excitedly and took cell phone pictures as they entered the striking glass atrium of the new museum. But conversation dwindled as attendees descended the escalator to the gallery that tells the heartbreaking history of how African Americans were brought to this country as slaves and the struggles with race relations ever since.

Graphic depictions of crowded slave ships, children being bought and sold, and the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till are displayed with unsparing detail. The Old Dominion students, representing all ethnicities, studied the display panels, taking in the emotional experience of the museum.

Porter led a small group of her students through the exhibits, stopping at the floor-to-ceiling display of the Nat Turner Bible.

"This is still emotional for me," she said as the students asked questions about how the Bible came to her family and ultimately ended up on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "This is where it belongs," Porter told them.

Turner, a slave in Southampton County, led a rebellion in 1831, which resulted in the deaths of several dozen white people. Turner was captured two months later, put on trial and hanged.

Porter told The Virginian-Pilot that Lavinia Francis, the great-grandmother of her stepfather, Maurice Person, had been hidden by house slaves the night Turner led his rebellion through the area. She went undetected. Years after Turner's trial, officials at the Southampton County Courthouse offered the Bible, which had been confiscated upon his capture, to Person's father, Walter. The keepsake was a family heirloom for decades.

Destini Harrell, a sophomore business student from Virginia Beach, was thrilled to attend the museum with Porter. "You look at this building, it stands for everything about our experience as a people, no matter how hard it is to see," Harrell said.

The museum is designed so that visitors first encounter the frequently tragic history of African Americans. As they climb to higher levels, they experience more stories of inspiration and achievement.

"Being here allows me to learn so much more, and it's inspiring because of the obstacles that have been overcome," Harrell said.

Two days after the trip, students gathered in Webb University Center to share their experiences. La Wanza Lett-Brewington, director of the ODU Women's Center, led the discussion. KeVonya Webb-Riley's hand shot up as soon as the floor was open to share thoughts.

"In school, we don't get a lot of the information we saw at the museum," she said. "I was overwhelmed with emotion. I learned so much about our experience that I need to think of it in categories. It was amazing."

Porter also told the group how meaningful it was for her to travel to the museum with ODU students.

"The Nat Turner Bible is part of my family history, and I wanted to share it with my Monarch family," she said. "I hope you all left feeling emotional, and you take what we learned in our journey and carry it with you in your heart."

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