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Daisy Turner's Kin: An African American Family Saga

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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 his former 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.

Publication of this book is supported by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the L. J. and Mary C. Skaggs Folklore Fund.

ISBN-13: 9780252080791

Media Type: Paperback(1st Edition)

Publisher: University of Illinois Press

Publication Date: 06-09-2015

Pages: 312

Product Dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

Jane C. Beck is Executive Director Emeritus and Founder of the Vermont Folklife Center. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Center for Vermont Research at the University of Vermont in 2011.

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Daisy Turner's Kin

An African American Family Saga

By Jane C. Beck


Copyright © 2015 Jane C. Beck
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09728-7


Meeting Daisy

This thing is in me. If I just had read it, it would be a different story. But I've lived it!

—Daisy Turner, interview with author, March 15, 1984

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 born in Grafton, Vermont, in 1883. The article traced her heritage back to England, Africa, and Virginia. I was intrigued. I wanted to meet her, but at a hundred years of age, was she healthy and mentally alert?

I was serving as folklorist for Vermont's State Arts Council, and my job was to bring traditional arts to the public through a variety of media. What better way than to present an African American storyteller who had grown up in Vermont, the whitest state in the Union? She might make a wonderful subject for a film to be shown in the schools. I called Dot Nadeau, the author of the article, who explained that although Daisy had a fascinating story, she was distrustful and seemed a bit paranoid. As I searched for an introduction to Daisy, I discovered that she had a reputation for being both feisty and suspicious. Apparently she owned a gun that she was not afraid to use. I decided to write her a letter, explaining why I wanted to meet her, and then to follow up with a phone call. I struggled over the missive, mailed it, and then passed the week impatiently, allowing her time to receive, read, and digest it. Finally, I made the call, but there was no answer.

Whenever I called someone to request an interview, I worried that my entreaty might be turned down. The more important an interview was to me, the more I agonized over it. And I felt it was crucial that I meet Daisy Turner. I let one more day pass and tried again, once more with anticipation rising. This time someone responded with a ringing "Hello." The voice sounded rich, vigorous—not what I was expecting. I asked if this was Miss Turner; it was. I explained why I was calling. 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?" Caught off guard, I stammered that I didn't think so. Her voice became warm and welcoming: "Well, come anytime."

I drove to Grafton on a bright, warm September day, and after a wrong turn or two, I found Daisy Turner's weathered white frame house just outside the village on Hinkley Brook Road. A figure sitting on the steps, dressed in a dark headscarf and printed skirt, was in animated conversation with a man standing a short distance away. He appeared to be out of patience. It seemed he had bought land from her to put his trailer on and had spent three times the cost of the land in legal fees. He was not happy.

As I was wondering if I should leave, another car pulled up, and a man, maybe seventy years old, climbed out. He took in the scene and called to Daisy that he would come back later. He questioned me as to who I was and, almost as if to whet my appetite, offered that in the past he had worked for Daisy and had played the saxophone and fiddle at her dances on the hill. Dances seemed a long way from the evolving situation. Voices were rising behind us. Daisy was railing at the government for not paying her father's Civil War pension, and in the next breath she was claiming that the Windham Foundation was trying to divest her of her property—first two hundred acres, then five hundred acres. Somebody was running drugs on Turner Hill. Planes and helicopters would fly over, and then one to two hundred cars would drive down the road. The man was trying to focus Daisy on settling the land dispute. Exasperated, he finally stalked off, shouting unpleasantries, and slammed his car door before driving away.

What an inopportune time to introduce myself. I took a deep breath and explained that I had written her and spoken with her over the phone. Yes, she had read my letter and remembered our conversation. In the letter, I mentioned that I was interested in making a film, and she told me someone else had already made a film of her. She was bitter about that, as she had never signed anything allowing it, nor had she liked the film itself. Things were going from bad to worse for me. She said she wanted me to write about her court cases and the people who were trying to kill her. Someone had broken her pipes and caused a flood in her house. Someone else had damaged her garage and tried to both murder and kidnap her.

I sidestepped these complaints and explained that I was not a writer, but rather an interviewer who recorded Vermonters' stories that might otherwise not be heard. The recorded interviews were then preserved in an archive and used in public programming. I had read Dot Nadeau's piece in the Brattleboro Reformer and believed her stories were particularly significant and should be recorded. Would she tell me a little about her life? I was surprised after her tirade that she needed no more encouragement to launch into storytelling mode. Suddenly she was in Africa, New Orleans, and Virginia.

As Daisy began to spin out the story of the Turner family, her demeanor changed—her rage dissipated, and she began weaving a credible and astonishing narrative, a multigenerational saga that spanned two centuries and played out over three continents. Her face did not betray her century of years—high cheekbones, wide-set eyes, smooth skin. She must have been a striking beauty in her youth. It was only later that I realized how petite she was—little more than five feet tall, but she seemed larger due to her power with words and the rich timbre of her voice. She was first and foremost a storyteller—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. Like the venerable griot, schooled by elders to serve as genealogist, historian, storyteller, and singer for the community, Daisy personified this role.

For two hours, sitting with her on the steps, she held me spellbound, frantically scribbling notes, as she would not allow me to record her. Story after story spilled out, punctuated by a song or recitation, seamlessly integrated. I asked if I could come back, and we made a date for the following Friday. Before I left, she insisted that we must have some ginger ale. Further, she wanted me to sign her guest book and to see the card she had received from President and Mrs. Reagan on her hundredth birthday. She went into the house, and I heard her rummaging around. Her eyesight was poor, and she called me to help her. I opened the screen door and was appalled at what I saw. The room had a small woodstove, two couches, several tables, a large cupboard for dishes, and a radio and television that had both seen better days. But the furniture was overwhelmed by paper bags, newspapers, and assorted items, which appeared to have been randomly strewn about. She knew where the guest book was and pointed me to a basket. Next, she directed me to another basket for the ginger ale, Styrofoam cups, and a box of vanilla cookies. She perched on a stool in front of the stove and waved me toward a chair, telling me to put the cloth bags that covered it on the floor. She had me pour the ginger ale, and as we settled in, she commented on the fact that I was wearing a dress, telling me it was "ladylike" and that she approved. Next, she asked me about my religion. As I am not particularly religious, I tried to avoid the discussion by saying I was Christian, but that answer was not satisfactory—she wanted to know what kind of Christian. I replied that I had been brought up in the Episcopal church, and for the moment that subject was behind us. Over the next few years, I came to realize what a central role religious faith played within the Turner family and how much it shaped Daisy's life. When I was taking my leave, Daisy bid me farewell by way of a long, extemporaneous prayer. I marveled at how the words, liquid and meaningful, flowed off her tongue. There was no question; she had a way with words. She was certainly in the tradition of the griot, a repository of a wealth of oral tradition: stories, songs, and poems, all of which were to be heard, experienced, and remembered.

Because Daisy's life spanned a century, her narrative was a bridge to a much earlier time, one to which we seldom have direct access. She remembered events that took place over ninety years ago—only one generation removed from slavery. She had heard firsthand accounts. Her family story had been preserved across four generations; I knew of no comparable narrative. It allowed insights into the slave trade, two generations of enslavement, escape, the aftermath of the Civil War, and the pursuit of the American dream, all from an African American perspective. The Turner saga was how the Turner family maintained its identity and made sense of its past. I was struck by the unexpectedness of hearing this narrative in Vermont and felt privileged to have access to this historical treasure.

I was unprepared for the immediacy of the narrative. "This was only a little over a hundred years ago," she told me. To Daisy, a century ago was yesterday, and she made me feel it. She emphatically told me (with energetic pantomime to drive home the reality of it) that her father had "heard the hooves of Booth's horse as he rode away after shooting Lincoln." For Daisy, this placed her father, Alec Turner, at the scene and underscored the importance of Lincoln to the Turners. John Wilkes Booth was shot and captured just five miles from the Gouldin plantation where Daisy's grandfather and father were enslaved. My own great-great-grandfather had written a letter to his oldest granddaughter describing what it was like on the day that Lincoln was shot. I treasured this as an intimate personal insight into the emotions of the day, but the energy and immediacy of Daisy's words brought me right into the action.

While her stories were arresting, what of her paranoia? Was it some kind of age-related dementia? Once she began talking of the past, she seemed to move into a different realm. Once involved in her narration, she became coherent, taking on her role of storyteller, once more a captivating presence. But could I keep her away from those all-consuming subjects of land and pension? How long would it be before I would be seen as against her? I suspected it was inevitable but was convinced that her story was so significant that it outweighed the risk. The inside of her house was partially the result of her deteriorating eyesight. She had no filing system and apparently no one to help her. No wonder she thought people were stealing her papers. I understood this was a lurking danger to avoid, but I was determined to visit her as frequently as possible.

I began to see her once a week and spend five or six hours with her. Half of that time, I helped Daisy go through papers, collected her mail, and ran errands for her; the other half, I asked about her past and recorded her. Before she would allow any recording, she wanted to know exactly for whom I worked and what I did. I explained that I was a folklorist, employed by the Vermont Arts Council in Montpelier and that my job was to focus on the traditional arts, discover them through interviewing, and then bring them to the public through exhibitions, films, radio, and school programming. I had never used my state employee identification card before, but it was evidence for Daisy that I was telling the truth. She wanted to know something of my background. I told her that I had been born in New York City during World War II, grew up on Long Island, and spent summers at my great-grandmother's farm in New Hampshire. I went to Middlebury College and then to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, married a Middlebury College professor, and lived in Ripton with our two children, thirty sheep, and various poultry.

As time went on, our relationship became warm and familiar. We genuinely enjoyed each other's company, and I hoped she was beginning to trust me. She asked me to call her "Aunt Daisy." As we continued to sort her papers, I could find no order to them. All jumbled together were page one and page four of a slave census of Caroline County, Virginia; her father's deed for the Turner Hill property; a card from her sister Violet Hall; letters from the 1970s; old electricity and phone bills; court briefs; and advertisements. I read everything aloud and tried to put things in order, but the next week nothing would be in the same place, and another search would begin. I dutifully took down letters that she dictated extemporaneously, read them back for corrections, and then made copies and mailed them for her. She also had me make phone calls for her to lawyers or to her nephews. She would rattle off their numbers without looking them up. Seldom did we get anywhere; only her nephews would take her calls, and they were seldom at home during the day.

Her recall amazed me as songs, recitations, and events rich in detail spilled out. When she talked about the past, she was in the moment: laughing at something amusing her siblings had done, marveling at her father's ingenuity or her mother's patience. She had a litany of her father's stories that she told over and over. When I asked her for further details, she sometimes became confused, which I attributed to her age. On her bad days, she would mix up generations, but when she was clear, she added new details that I had never heard.

While she still ranted about her father's Civil War pension, her property, the Windham Foundation, and people who were causing her trouble, I learned to interrupt her, sometimes midsentence. Could she tell me what her family used to do at Christmas time or what kind of food her mother prepared? I would ask her if she wanted some ginger ale, and usually she said yes, admitting that her heart was pounding. After one of these episodes, she often was more confused than usual.

Daisy's father was at the center of her world. From her earliest years, Daisy remembered him telling stories of the past. Every night after dinner, she and her siblings would gather and listen to their father. It was important that these stories be preserved. He wanted his children to know where they came from. "See, we didn't come from nowhere," she told me. "We have a background. And that background can be traced right down to the roots!"

It was an oral narrative—a well-polished artifact, an heirloom carefully preserved through four generations. It was unique in its extensiveness, its power, and the pride with which it was told. With the end of the Civil War, it was more common for the emancipated to look forward, rather than back. In Caroline County, Virginia, where Alec was born, I was told by local historian Cleo Coleman, the great-granddaughter of a freed man, that little about plantation life remained in oral tradition among African Americans, as few of those enslaved wanted to remember that time.

Alec Turner was an exception. He acknowledged his past while he strode optimistically into the future, determined to succeed. Indeed, the fact that his family narrative encompassed two generations of slavery is unusual. The oral narrative harked back to the importance of oral tradition in Africa and the significance that storytelling held for those who could not write. While Alec was literate, he grew up in a community where oral traditions were carefully preserved, where the role of a griot was deeply respected.

Daisy described her father as tall, slender, graceful, and a born gentleman. He was "a handsome man, a peculiar man, an odd man, but a gentleman. You wouldn't just pass him by, but you would look at him and wonder what he was—a writer, a thinker, a musician? He had strange features and seemed to be looking beyond you. He had a very deep interior. His words were never light. Everything he said had meaning."

Alec was born in 1845, a slave on a plantation in Virginia, and died in 1923, a freeman and landowner in Grafton, Vermont. More than anything, Daisy wanted his life to be remembered, honored, and celebrated. She felt it was her obligation to tell the family story: "This thing is in me. If I just had read it, it would be a different story. But I've lived it and seen it." She also believed, "You can't tell a thing unless you tell the good and the bad as they is."

One day, early in the process, she called me at home. She wanted to make sure I would be there that week because John Daniels was coming. I learned later that the Danielses were an old Grafton family who, among other things, had given land for the Grafton cemetery behind Daisy's house. Her father had helped set out the spruces that now tower over it. Daniels's grandfather, also named John Daniels, and great-uncle Francis Daniels had been instrumental in helping Daisy's father design his house. That Wednesday I was already at Daisy's when John Daniels and his wife arrived. They lived in Sharon Springs, New York, and were over for a brief visit. Daniels had contacted Senator Robert Stafford to help Daisy with her father's pension claims. I realized that she wanted me to meet people who knew her family, were familiar with what her family had accomplished, and were sympathetic to any injustices done to Daisy as a member of this family.


Excerpted from Daisy Turner's Kin by Jane C. Beck. Copyright © 2015 Jane C. Beck. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix

Introduction: The Turner Narrative and Memory 1

1 Meeting Daisy 11

2 African Roots 23

3 Jack Gouldin and Robert Berkeley 41

4 Plantation Life 62

5 Civil War 84

6 Postwar 108

7 Vermont 129

8 Journey's End 155

9 Daisy's Last Years 192

Afterword 209

Research and Acknowledgments 219

Appendix: Turner Family Genealogical Chart 226

Notes 229

Bibliography 269

Index 279