|Intro||American slave rebellion leader|
|From||United States of America|
|Birth||1 October 1800, Southampton County, Virginia, USA|
|Death||11 November 1831, Courtland, Southampton County, Virginia, USA (aged 31 years)|
Nat Turner's Rebellion, also known as the Southampton Insurrection, was a rebellion of enslaved Virginians that took place in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831, led by Nat Turner. The rebels killed between 55 and 65 people, at least 51 of whom were White. The rebellion was effectively suppressed within a few days, at Belmont Plantation on the morning of August 23, but Turner survived in hiding for more than two months afterwards.
There was widespread fear in the aftermath, and militias organized in retaliation to the rebels. Approximately 120 enslaved people and free African Americans were killed by militias and mobs in the area. The Commonwealth of Virginia later executed an additional 56 enslaved people accused of being part of the rebellion, including Turner himself; many Black people who had not participated were also persecuted in the frenzy. Because Turner had been educated and literate as well as a popular preacher, state legislatures subsequently passed new laws prohibiting education of enslaved people and free Black people, restricting rights of assembly and other civil liberties for free Black people, and requiring White ministers to be present at all worship services.
Nat Turner (October 2, 1800 – November 11, 1831) was an enslaved African-American preacher who organized and led the four-day rebellion of enslaved and free Black people in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. Born into slavery on October 2, 1800, also in Southampton County, a rural plantation area with more Black people than White, Turner was recorded as "Nat" by Benjamin Turner, the man who enslaved him and his family. When Benjamin Turner died in 1810, under then-current laws which made slavery legal, Nat was inherited as property by Benjamin's son Samuel Turner. For most of his life, he was known simply as "Nat", but after the 1831 rebellion, he was widely referred to as "Nat Turner". Turner knew little about the background of his father, who was believed to have escaped from slavery when Turner was a young boy. Turner spent his entire life in Southampton County.
Turner learned how to read and write at a young age. He was identified as having "natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension, surpassed by few." He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible. He frequently had visions which he interpreted as messages from God, and these visions influenced his life. At age 21, he escaped from his enslaver, Samuel Turner. After becoming delirious from hunger and receiving a vision which told him to "return to the service of my earthly master", he returned a month later. In 1824, he had his second vision while working in the fields under a new enslaver, Thomas Moore. In it, "the Saviour was about to lay down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and the great day of judgment was at hand".
Turner often conducted services, preaching the Bible to his fellow enslaved people, who dubbed him "The Prophet". In addition to Blacks, Turner garnered White followers such as Etheldred T. Brantley, whom Turner was credited with having convinced to "cease from his wickedness".
By the spring of 1828, Turner was convinced that he "was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty". He "heard a loud noise in the heavens" while working in Moore's fields on May 12, "and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first". Historian and theologian Joseph Dreis later wrote: "In connecting this vision to the motivation for his rebellion, Turner makes it clear that he sees himself as participating in the confrontation between God's Kingdom and the anti-Kingdom that characterized his social-historical context."
In 1830, Joseph Travis purchased Turner, and Turner later recalled that he was "a kind master" who had "placed the greatest confidence" in him. Turner eagerly anticipated God's signal to "slay my enemies with their own weapons". On February 12, 1831, he witnessed a solar eclipse that was visible from much of the southeastern United States, and was convinced that it was the sign for which he was waiting. He began preparations for an uprising against the enslavers in Southampton County by purchasing muskets. Turner said, "I communicated the great work laid out to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence," fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam.
After the rebellion, a reward notice described him as:
5 feet 6 or 8 inches [168–173 cm] high, weighs between 150 and 160 pounds [68–73 kg], rather "bright" [light-colored] complexion, but not a mulatto, broad shoulders, larger flat nose, large eyes, broad flat feet, rather knockneed, walks brisk and active, hair on the top of the head very thin, no beard, except on the upper lip and the top of the chin, a scar on one of his temples, also one on the back of his neck, a large knot on one of the bones of his right arm, near the wrist, produced by a blow.
Turner began communicating his plans to a small circle of trusted fellow slaves. "All his initial recruits were other slaves from his neighborhood". The neighborhood men had to find ways to communicate their intentions without revealing the plot. Songs may have tipped the neighborhood members to movements. "It is believed that one of the ways Turner summoned fellow conspirators to the woods was through the use of particular songs."
Beginning in February 1831, Turner claimed certain atmospheric conditions as signs to begin preparations for a rebellion of slaves against their enslavers. On February 12, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was visible in Virginia and much of the rest of the southeastern United States. He believed the eclipse to be a sign that it was time to revolt. Turner envisioned this as a Black man's hand reaching over the sun.
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Turner originally planned to begin the rebellion on Independence Day, July 4, 1831, but he had fallen ill and used the delay for additional planning with his co-conspirators. An atmospheric disturbance on August 13 made the sun appear bluish-green, possibly the result of lingering atmospheric debris from an eruption of Mount St. Helens in present-day Washington state; Turner took it as the final signal and began his rebellion a week later, on August 21. Starting with several trusted fellow slaves, he ultimately enlisted more than 70 enslaved and free Blacks, some of whom were on horseback. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing enslaved people and killing many of the White people whom they encountered.
Muskets and firearms were too difficult to collect and would gather unwanted attention, so the rebels used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments. The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex and the rebels killed White men, women, and children. Nat Turner confessed to killing only one person, Margaret Whitehead, whom he killed with a blow from a fence post.
Historian Stephen B. Oates states that Turner called on his group to "kill all the white people". A newspaper noted, "Turner declared that 'indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they attained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm.'" The group spared a few homes "because Turner believed the poor White inhabitants 'thought no better of themselves than they did of negroes.'" The Black rebels killed approximately 60 people before they were defeated by the state militia. Eventually, the state militia infantry were able to defeat the insurrection with twice the manpower of the rebels, reinforced by three companies of artillery.
Turner also thought that revolutionary violence would serve to awaken the attitudes of Whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slave-holding. Turner later said that he wanted to spread "terror and alarm" among Whites.
Within a day of the suppression of the rebellion, the local militia and three companies of artillery were joined by detachments of men from the USS Natchez and USS Warren, which were anchored in Norfolk, and militias from other counties in Virginia and North Carolina that bordered Southampton. The Commonwealth of Virginia eventually executed 56 Black people, and militias killed at least 100 more. Another estimate was that 120 Blacks were killed, most of whom were not involved with the rebellion.
Rumors quickly spread that the slave revolt was not limited to Southampton and that it had spread as far south as Alabama. Fears led to reports in North Carolina that "armies" of enslaved people were seen on highways, and that they had burned and massacred the White inhabitants of Wilmington, North Carolina, and were marching on the state capital. Such fear and alarm led to Whites attacking Blacks throughout the South with flimsy cause. The editor of the Richmond Whig described the scene as "the slaughter of many blacks without trial and under circumstances of great barbarity". White violence against Black people continued for two weeks after the rebellion had been suppressed. General Eppes ordered troops and White citizens to stop the killing:
He will not specify all the instances that he is bound to believe have occurred, but pass in silence what has happened, with the expression of his deepest sorrow, that any necessity should be supposed to have existed, to justify a single act of atrocity. But he feels himself bound to declare, and hereby announces to the troops and citizens, that no excuse will be allowed for any similar acts of violence, after the promulgation of this order.
Reverend G. W. Powell wrote a letter to the New York Evening Post stating that "many negroes are killed every day. The exact number will never be known." A company of militia from Hertford County, North Carolina, reportedly killed 40 Blacks in one day and took $23 and a gold watch from the dead. Captain Solon Borland led a contingent from Murfreesboro, North Carolina, and he condemned the acts "because it was tantamount to theft from the white owners of the slaves". Blacks suspected of participating in the rebellion were beheaded by the militia and "their severed heads were mounted on poles at crossroads as a grisly form of intimidation". A section of Virginia State Route 658 remains labeled as "Blackhead Signpost Road" in reference to these events.
White militias and mobs attacked Blacks in the area, killing an estimated 200 men, women, and children, many of whom were not involved in the revolt.
During the rebellion, Virginia legislators targeted free Blacks with a colonization bill, which allocated new funding to remove them to Africa, and a police bill that denied free Blacks trials by jury and made any free Blacks convicted of a crime subject to sale into slavery and relocation.
Turner eluded capture for six weeks, but remained in Southampton County. On October 30, a White farmer named Benjamin Phipps discovered him hidden among the local Nottoway people, in a depression in the earth, created by a large, fallen tree that was covered with fence rails. While awaiting trial, Turner confessed his knowledge of the rebellion to attorney Thomas Ruffin Gray, who compiled what he claimed was Turner's confession.
He was tried on November 5, 1831, for "conspiring to rebel and making insurrection", and was convicted and sentenced to death. Asked if he regretted what he had done, he responded, "Was Christ not crucified?" Turner was hanged on November 11, 1831, in Jerusalem, Virginia. His body was then dissected and flayed, his skin being used to make purses as souvenirs.
According to some sources, he was beheaded as an example to frighten other would-be rebels. Turner received no formal burial; his headless remains were possibly buried in an unmarked grave.
Soon after Turner's execution, Thomas Ruffin Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner. His book was derived partly from research Gray did while Turner was in hiding and partly from jailhouse conversations with Turner before trial. This work is the primary historical document regarding Nat Turner, but some historians believe Gray's portrayal of Turner is inaccurate.
In 2002, a skull said to have been Turner's was given to Richard G. Hatcher, the former mayor of Gary, Indiana, for the collection of a civil rights museum he planned to build there. In 2016, Hatcher returned the skull to two of Turner's descendants. Since receiving the skull, the family has temporarily placed it with the Smithsonian Institution, where DNA testing will be done to determine whether it is the authentic remains of Nat Turner. If the test renders positive results, the family plans to bury his remains next to his descendants.
Another skull said to have been Turner's was contributed to the College of Wooster in Ohio upon its incorporation in 1866. When the school's only academic building burned down in 1901, the skull was saved by Dr. H. N. Mateer. Visitors recalled seeing a certificate, signed by a physician in Southampton County in 1866, that attested to the authenticity of the skull. The skull was eventually misplaced.
In the aftermath of the rebellion, dozens of suspected rebels were tried in courts called specifically for the purpose of hearing the cases against the enslaved people. Most of the trials took place in Southampton, but some were held in neighboring Sussex County plus a few in other counties. Most enslaved people were found guilty and many were then executed, while others were transported outside the state but not executed; 15 of the enslaved individuals tried in Southampton were acquitted. Of the 30 convicted, 18 were hanged while 12 were sold out of state. Of the five free Blacks tried for participation in the insurrection, one was hanged while the others were acquitted.
At least seven enslavers sent legislative petitions for compensation for the loss of their enslaved people without trials during or immediately after the insurrection. They were all rejected.
The Virginia General Assembly debated the future of slavery the following spring. Some urged gradual emancipation, but after Virginia's leading intellectual, Thomas R. Dew, President of the College of William and Mary, published "a pamphlet defending the wisdom and benevolence of slavery, and the folly of its abolition", the pro-slavery side prevailed. The General Assembly passed legislation making it unlawful to teach reading and writing to either enslaved or free Blacks and restricting all Blacks from holding religious meetings without the presence of a licensed White minister. Other slave-holding states in the South enacted similar laws restricting activities of both enslaved and free Blacks. Across Virginia and other Southern states, legislators made criminal the possession of abolitionist publications by either Whites or Blacks.
The fear caused by Nat Turner's insurrection and the concerns raised in the emancipation debates that followed resulted in politicians and writers responding by defining slavery as a "positive good". Such authors included Thomas Roderick Dew, mentioned above. Other Southern writers began to promote a paternalistic ideal of improved Christian treatment of slaves, in part to avoid such rebellions. Dew and others believed that they were civilizing Black people (who by this stage were mostly American-born) through slavery. The writings were collected in The pro-slavery argument, as maintained by the most distinguished writers of the southern states (1853).
The massacre of Black people after the rebellion was typical of the pattern of White fears and overreaction to Blacks fighting for their freedom; many innocent Blacks were killed in revenge. African Americans have generally regarded Turner as a hero of resistance, who made enslavers pay for the hardships they had caused so many Africans and African Americans.
James H. Harris, who has written extensively about the history of the Black church, says that the revolt "marked the turning point in the black struggle for liberation." According to Harris, Turner believed that "only a cataclysmic act could convince the architects of a violent social order that violence begets violence."
In the period soon after the revolt, Whites did not try to interpret Turner's motives and ideas. Antebellum enslavers were shocked by the murders and had their fears of rebellions heightened; among them, Turner's name became "a symbol of terrorism and violent retribution."
According to a letter to the editor of The Liberator, a link between the revolt and William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper was "the opinion of many" in the South, and the letter goes on to state that, if Garrison were to go to the South, he "would not be permitted to live long, ...he would be taken away, and no one be the wiser for it. ...[I]f Mr Garrison were to go to the South, he would be dispatched immediately, ...[an] opinion expressed by persons at the South, repeatedly."
Southern states tightened restrictions on both free and enslaved Blacks, in an effort to compel the free Blacks to go somewhere else and keep the enslaved ones incommunicado by prohibiting teaching literacy and severely restricting preaching. Military readiness was also investigated: South Carolina built a series of arsenals to ensure weapons would be available. Northern states shared much the same feeling: a proposal to create a college for African Americans in New Haven, Connecticut was overwhelmingly rejected (see New Haven Excitement), and schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut were destroyed by group violence (see Noyes Academy and Canterbury Female Boarding School).
In an 1843 speech at the National Negro Convention, Henry Highland Garnet, a formerly enslaved man and active abolitionist, described Nat Turner as "patriotic", saying that "future generations will remember him among the noble and brave." In 1861, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Northern writer, praised Turner in a seminal article published in the Atlantic Monthly. He described Turner as a man "who knew no book but the Bible, and that by heart who devoted himself soul and body to the cause of his race."
Legacy and honors
- In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Nat Turner as one of the 100 Greatest African Americans.
- In 2009, in Newark, New Jersey, the largest city-owned park to be built was named Nat Turner Park, in his honor. The facility cost $12 million in construction.
- In 2012, the small Bible that belonged to Turner was donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture by the Person family of Southampton, Virginia.
In literature, film and music
- The Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown, a slave narrative by an escaped slave, refers to the rebellion. It is available here.
- Thomas R. Gray's 1831 pamphlet account, The Confessions of Nat Turner, based on his jailhouse interview with Turner, is available here.
- Harriet Beecher Stowe included a copy of Turner's Confessions as an appendix to her 1855 novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. The title character is an escaped enslaved man and religious zealot who aids fellow enslaved refugees and spends most of the novel plotting a rebellion of enslaved people. He is a composite of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey.
- William Cooper Nell wrote an account of Turner in his history book The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution, 1855.
- Harriet Jacobs, also an escaped enslaved individual, refers to the violence against Blacks following Turner's rebellion at some length in her 1861 classic, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
- Robert Hayden, 'The Ballad of Nat Turner', in A Ballad of Remembrance, 1962, 1966.
- The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), a novel by William Styron, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1968. It prompted much controversy, with some criticizing a White author writing about such an important Black figure. Several critics described it as racist and "a deliberate attempt to steal the meaning of a man's life." These responses led to cultural discussions about how different peoples interpret the past and whether any one group has sole ownership of any portion.
- In response to Styron's novel, ten African-American writers published a collection of essays, William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968). The second edition was published in 1998 under the title The Second Crucifixion of Nat Turner.
- Nat Turner's Rebellion is featured in Episode 5 of the 1977 TV miniseries Roots. It is historically inaccurate, as the episode is set in 1841 and the revolt took place in 1831. It is also mentioned in the 2016 series.
- In Episode 1 in the 1985 television miniseries North and South, Nat Turner and his uprising are mentioned by the character Tillet Main.
- In 2007, cartoonist and comic book author Kyle Baker wrote a two-part comic book about Turner and his uprising, which was called Nat Turner.
- The Birth of a Nation, the 2016 film starring, produced and directed by Nate Parker, co-written with Jean McGianni Celestin, is about Turner's 1831 rebellion. This film, which also stars Gabrielle Union, was sold in January 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $17.5 million.
- In his song "How Great," Chance The Rapper makes reference to Turner's rebellion in the line, "Hosanna Santa invoked and woke up enslaved people from Southampton to Chatham Manor."
- In the early 1990s, hip hop artist Tupac Shakur spoke in interviews about Nat Turner and his admiration for his spirit against oppression. Shakur also honored Turner with a cross tattoo on his back "EXODUS 1831" – which is a reference to 1831, the year Turner led the rebellion.
- Nat Turner is honored in numerous Black history books including 100 Greatest African Americans by Molefi Kete Asante, Extraordinary Black Americans from Colonial to Contemporary Times by Susan Altman, and African Americans Voices Of Triumph: Perseverance.
- In 2016, the play Nat Turner in Jerusalem, by Nathan Alan Davis was produced at the New York Theatre Workshop, and in 2018 at the Forum Theatre (Washington, D.C.)
- Herbert Aptheker. American Negro Slave Revolts. 5th edition. New York, NY: International Publishers, 1983 (1943).
- Kim Warren, "Literacy and Liberation," Reviews in American History Volume 33, Number 4, December 2005, Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press
- Virginia Writers' Program, Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion, Richmond, VA: Virginia State Library, reprint, 1992. ISBN 0-88490-173-4.