From West Africa to slavery in the Deep South to white Vermont, Beck book weaves the tale
MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Folklife Center (VFC) founder Jane Beck promised Daisy Turner back in the mid-1980s that she would write a book on Turner’s gripping stories about her family’s odyssey from West Africa, through slavery, to a life of freedom and self sufficiency in the small community of Grafton, Vt.
Now 27 years removed from Daisy Turner’s death at the age of 104, Beck has finally made good on her pledge to her late friend, a master storyteller and the daughter of a slave.
“She knew the stories wouldn’t be taken seriously until something was in print,” said Beck, who recorded and filmed Turner during multiple visits spanning three years. “I realized that memory is notoriously unreliable, and oral history gets a bad rap and I thought the only way that her stories would be taken seriously was to put them in larger historical context. So that’s what I tried to do.”
The impressive results are contained in Beck’s new book, “Daisy Turner’s Kin.” Beck, a longtime Addison County resident, combines Turner’s family stories with related historical facts and events to chart four generations of Daisy’s family. Beck uses several of what she calls Turner’s “touchstone” stories to put a face on what was a very turbulent time in U.S. history. There are stories about the abduction into slavery of Turner’s African ancestors; her father’s experience of learning how to read, thanks to a slave-owner’s granddaughter; her father’s return as a soldier to his former plantation to kill his overseer; and Daisy’s childhood stand against racism.
Beck recalled her almost humorously awkward first meeting with Turner, which came following appeals through a letter and several phone calls, the last of which finally paid dividends. It was during the summer of 1983, while Beck was serving as a folklorist for Vermont’s State Arts Council. Her job was to bring traditional arts to the public through a variety of media. Beck knew she had found a gold mine when she was alerted to Turner, the centenarian daughter of slaves now residing in the country’s whitest state.
“She listened for a bit and then suddenly cut right to what she believed was the crux of the matter, booming: ‘Are you a prejudiced woman?’” Beck recalled of that introductory phone call. “I stammered that I didn’t think so. Her voice became warm and welcoming: ‘Well, come anytime.’”
“Anytime,” unfortunately for Beck, turned out to be a day on which Turner was engaged in a land dispute with a man who had showed up on her doorstep at her Grafton farm. Fortunately, Turner made time for Beck and quickly launched into storytelling mode.
“Suddenly, she was in Africa, New Orleans and Virginia,” Beck wrote in her book.
Turner was a diminutive woman, but her rich voice and storytelling abilities gave her a larger-than-life impression — even at the advanced age of 100, Beck recalled.
“She was first and foremost a storyteller,” Beck writes, “vibrant and alive, her voice rising and falling, stories tumbling out one after another. One moment she was quiet, the next electric — performing, her arms pantomiming a reaction, her cane mimicking a task. She knew how to build a story to its climax, using repetition, suspense and surprise. I forgot her age, forgot the time and was mesmerized by the power of her voice and the scope of her story.”
Beck would return to Turner’s home almost weekly for the next installments of her stories. Turner initially did not want to be recorded. She would soon relent, however, resulting in a Daisy Turner archive at the Folklife Center of 60 audio tapes and 15-20 videotapes. Beck has had all of those tapes transcribed into print.
Turner’s stories not only encompassed more than 90 years of her own life, but crossed four generations of her family going back to the early 1800s. She methodically absorbed all of the family stories that had been passed down from her kinfolk dating back to their days in West Africa.
“I knew of no comparable narrative,” Beck said. “It allowed insights from the slave trade, two generations of enslavement, escape, the aftermath of the Civil War and the pursuit of the American dream — all from the African American perspective.”
A FAMILY’S STORY
The Turner saga begins during the early 1800s, when a trade ship capsized in a storm in the Gulf of Guinea off West Africa. The boat included a recently married British couple. The husband died in the accident, while the wife was rescued by an African chieftain. That woman remained in the African village and had a child with the son of the chief. That child, a boy they name Alessi, was Daisy’s grandfather.
Alessi learned English from his mother and was working in the trade industry when he was captured and shipped to America as a slave. He was sold in New Orleans during the early 1830s to a Port Royal, Va.-based plantation owner named Jack Gouldin. Soon after making his purchase, Gouldin changed Alessi’s name to “Robert.”
Proud, stubborn and resilient, Robert refused to work for Gouldin. So Gouldin turned the strong and athletic Robert into a boxer to fight slaves from surrounding plantations as part of a gambling scheme, according to Beck’s book. Robert would refuse to box after killing a Jamaican opponent in the ring. Robert died when his son Alec — Daisy’s father — was 6 years old.
Alec Turner was born into slavery at Gouldin’s plantation in Virginia. He was taught to read by Gouldin’s granddaughter Zephie, who also offered to help him escape. Turner was around 16 when he ran away from the Gouldin plantation in April of 1862, when the First New Jersey Cavalry was camped alongside the Rappahannock River. Turner, who quickly joined the Union Army, is said to have returned to the plantation to kill his overseer as revenge for mistreatment that he and other slaves had received, Beck recounted.
Turner would go on to live an industrious life, eventually settling on a farm in Grafton in 1877. He and his wife built a home on 160 acres and raised 13 children, among them Daisy, born on June 21, 1883.
“He was magnetic; he drew people to him,” Beck said of Alec Turner. “He was an outstanding guy. He was very powerful.”
‘DIDN’T COME FROM NOWHERE’
Alec Turner would gather all the children together after dinner to share family stories so that their history would be remembered and repeated.
“See, we didn’t come from nowhere,” Turner told Beck of her dad’s message. “We have a background. And that background can be traced right down to the roots.”
Daisy Turner idolized her father and always remembered his message of assimilating the family’s history and passing it on, Beck noted. And Beck would record a lot of that history during her frequent meetings with Daisy. Some days, Beck would spend five or more hours with Turner, using some of that time to help her with errands. They became friends, and Turner would ask Beck to call her “Aunt Daisy.”
Turner would occasionally rant about the Civil War pension her father never got, ongoing property disputes, and people who were causing her problems. Fortunately, Beck got to a point in their relationship where she was able to put Turner back on her story-telling task without offending her.
Daisy Turner told Beck that when her father moved to Grafton, he was told “he wouldn’t be able to earn enough money to put salt in his bread.”
He proved them wrong, through a lot of hard work.
“He found out most Vermonters had a three-and-a-half pound axe,” Beck said, “so he had a four-pound axe made so he could cut more lumber.”
Alec Turner, according to his daughter, was the only African American within many miles and was asked by local residents to roll up his sleeves to display his black skin.
“He was comfortable with that,” Beck said.
Daisy used to recount how her dad went to the local general store one day to buy 10 pounds of flour.
“The storeowner said, ‘Well, if you can carry a barrel of flour home, I’ll give it to you,” the story goes.
Sure enough, Alec carried the barrel three miles back home.
“This, of course, became a legendary tale in town,” Beck said.
A DAISY TURNER STORY
One of Daisy’s favorite stories centered on a student project at the Grafton school when she was 8 years old. The teacher asked her students to take dolls from different countries and learn facts about those nations.
“Daisy was asked to take a black doll, and she didn’t want to do it,” Beck said. “She had a white doll at home that she liked.”
Daisy asked her father what she should do, and he asked her to comply with the teacher’s request.
“Then (Daisy) hears she’s supposed to wear a red dress, and everyone else will be wearing a white dress, and that she is going to be the last to present in the program,” Beck said. “This does not sit well with her.”
When it comes time for Daisy’s turn to speak, she does not talk about her doll and facts about the country it represents. Instead, she makes up a poem, on the spot, that speaks to racial injustice, exemplified by her being asked to dress differently and showcase a black doll at the end of the program.
“She won first prize,” Beck said of the reaction to her poem. “At 8, she was standing up for her rights.”
Beck began writing “Daisy Turner’s Kin” in earnest in 2007, following her retirement as director of the Vermont Folklife Center. The book is published by the University of Illinois Press and is available at local book stores, like the Vermont Book Shop in Middlebury, and online through Amazon.
“Daisy’s stories set me on an exploratory journey that inspired and captivated me for 30 years,” Beck wrote. “Her story must be preserved. Too many other family narratives have been lost. Daisy knew what she was doing and succeeded through her mastery of the spoken word. She remains a raconteur for the ages.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]