104 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER OF A SLAVE REMEMBERS VERMONT NEGROES AND CIVIL WAR
SPRINGFIELD, Vt. - Daisy Turner can't see, can't walk and can't hear very well.
But she can remember. When she celebrated her 104th birthday recently at a nursing home, with the governor of Vermont and family members at her side, she was mindful of the Civil War and her white neighbors who fought so she would be free from slavery.
Her eyes shut and an afghan wrapped around her legs, Turner rocked slowly in her wheelchair as she spoke in the cadence of a Civil War hymn.
Roll Call of Town Boys
She recited the 18-stanza hymn called "The Boy With the Golden Hair," and when it was over she didn't stop. She added a roll call of her own, of the boys from her hometown who went off to war: the Danielses, the Duncans, the Barretts, the Burgesses, the Halls and the 14-year-old Hemi"Vermont deserves great credit," said Turner, who was born in Grafton, a southern Vermont community with nearly all white houses along Main Street.
"Vermont deserves great credit," said Turner, who was born in Grafton, a southern Vermont community with nearly all white houses along Main Street.
Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin, whispering in her ear, asked: "Why exactly?"
"For fighting and putting their soldiers in the front lines, fighting for the freedom of the Negro slaves," Turner said. More than 30,000 Vermonters fought in the Civil War and 5,000 were killed, including many Grafton boys.
In the state that first abolished slavery and that now has fewer than 1,200 blacks, the fewest of any state in the nation, Daisy Turner's life story is being celebrated.
Story Told on Video
Her story is presented on a 28-minute video film called "On My Own: The Traditions of Daisy Turner." The video was a finalist at the American Film and Video Festival this year.
In song, poem and narrative, Turner told her story to Jane Beck, a folklorist with the Vermont Council on the Arts.
Turner's story starts around 1800 with her great-grandmother, an Englishwoman, sailing off the coast of Africa when her ship is wrecked and her husband dies. The woman was saved by a chieftain's son and later the two had a son of their own, Turner's grandfather, Alexander.
Alexander was captured and sold as a slave in the 1820s to a Virginia farmer. He married a Cherokee Indian and, in 1845, they had a son, Turner's father, Alec.
Alec Turner escaped from slavery in 1862 and joined the First New Jersey Cavalry, fighting with them during the rest of the Civil War. He moved to Boston, married, and in 1872 two businessmen from Grafton persuaded him to move to the small Vermont town.
Daisy Turner was born 11 years later, one of 13 children.
Built His Dream House
Her father bought land piece by piece until he had 150 acres, and then he built his dream house, Journey's End. During that time, he would entertain his children in their kitchen at night with songs and poems about his and his ancestors' lives.
The Civil War, though, was always the central event in the life of the family, and on the video Turner talks at length about it.
In one passage, she rhetorically asks why the war was fought. "For what? That is for freedom! " she shouts. "And that is that the Negroes might have their rights and civil rights and human rights, like Jesus Christ had said, 'Every man was born equal.'
"And these white people--how could I help but love them when they've given their blood for me? And as I said, the fields is fertile with their blood so that we could have our freedom. And otherwise I would be a slave this minute, talking to you all."
Beck spent three years recording Turner's story.
In 1923, when Turner was 40, she was engaged and living in Boston. She had planned to get married at Journey's End, but her father fell ill that December.
Sued Fiance for $3,000
She went to see him, and he died shortly before Christmas. When Turner returned to Boston, she found out that her fiance had had an affair with another woman. She broke off the engagement, took him to court for breach of an agreement and won a $3,000 settlement. Her picture and story made the Boston newspapers.
After the episode with her fiance, Turner never married. She and her family ran a hunting lodge for wealthy out-of-staters for several decades at Journey's End.
When the family home burned in 1962, she moved to a house in the village of Grafton and was supported by family members and income from Social Security. She lived alone until 1985, when a niece persuaded her to move into the Springfield Convalescent Center, the site of her 104th birthday party.
Many of Turner's relatives attended the party, including Linda Yarosevich, 38, Turner's great-niece, who is grateful for Turner's stories of the family history.
"It's like 'Roots' on television," said Yarosevich, who has passed the stories on to her twin sons. "I think our family's history is an important thing to remember. They've seen the tape. They'll remember her."
'Unfolding Pages of History'
Kunin also noted the value of her stories. "I feel like I'm unfolding pages of history," the governor said.
Kunin asked Turner about the introduction in Grafton of the radio, car and airplane. Turner has never flown.
"This airplane business. . . . " she said, shaking her head and letting the thought trail off. "Radio is altogether too fast. Cars are a perfect nuisance for the horses."
The governor also wanted to know about the suffrage movement.
Turner told about one of her sisters who would go into town and urge women to fight for the right to vote. "She would say, 'Vote for women's suffrage. Don't worry about baking muffins for your men.' "
Invitation to Governor
Turner then extended an invitation to the governor.
"I want to get you up on Turner's Hill this summer," she said. Journey's End burned in 1962, but Turner still owns the land around it.
After the guests had left and Turner was taken to her room, two nieces, Freda Knight, 56, and Yohanna McDermott, 66, both of Athens, helped raise her into bed. One of them put two daisies in her hair.
Turner appeared tired, her face slumped forward. But she suddenly raised her head.
"I'd like to get back to Turner's Hill," she said.