Today is Nat Turner’s birthday. He was born a slave in 1800 in Southampton County, Virginia. The man who “owned” him was Benjamin Turner, and when he died, Nat became the “property” of Benjamin’s son, Samuel.
Little is known of Nat’s father, and it is believed that he escaped slavery when Turner was very young.
Born a slave with no last name, history failed to record whether Nat chose Turner as his surname or it was simply given him along the way.
Black History Month being decades away when I was educated at Germantown Elementary, Germantown Junior High School, and Valley View High, Nat was only mentioned in passing. It was simply stated he “…lead a slave uprising in Virginia, and a lot of people died…”
I remember going to the World Book – our go to guide in pre-Google days – and reading UP on the guy.
At the time, he was regarded as a rebel, a revolutionary, and a murderer.
He was associated with fear, death, hatred, and troublemakers.
I don’t remember my teacher at the time being a big fan.
Although the facts of history never change, their interpretation sometimes does.
Turner and his rebels went from plantation to plantation in 1831, gathering horses, guns, and cohorts who wanted to join his band.
The “mob” consisted of runaway slaves and free blacks. While the rebellion raged, Virginia legislators targeted free blacks with a colonization bill.
It allowed for funding to remove them from Virginia to a colony elsewhere, denied free blacks trials by jury and allowed for any free black convicted of a crime to be sold back into slavery and relocated.
Really, they had time for this while a band of revolutionaries roamed the countryside killing and burning.
Turner’s band cost the lives of roughly 65 whites.
In retaliation, organized militias and regular troops came out to suppress the rebellion and about 120 blacks were killed. Some modern historians believe the number was higher.
Some say much higher.
Some of those killed were not involved in the uprising; they were just in the way and the wrong color.
The uprising was suppressed. Might makes right and all, and Turner went into hiding.
The legislators got busy again passing new laws to control slaves and free blacks. Education was prohibited, free blacks’ right to assemble was restricted in a direct violation of the U S Constitution, and their right to bear arms was taken as well.
In North Carolina where free blacks had been able to vote, that right was removed.
Oh, and just to keep an eye on things, black religious services had to have a white minister in the crowd. Can’t have the black folks singin’ Go Down Moses and all that now can we?
Turner’s entire life was spent in Southampton County, most of it on the plantation of his owner. The county consisted of many plantations where slaves made UP the majority of the population. Turner was reported by his master as “…having natural intelligence and quickness of apprehension surpassed by few. He learned to read and write at a young age. Deeply religious, he was often seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible.”
None of that crossed the lips of any of my teachers nor was it in the World Book. It was, however, recorded in plantation records.
Visions resulted from Turner’s deeply religious nature. He believed they were messages from God, and at the age of 22, he ran away from the plantation but returned claiming a spiritual revelation told him to do so!
He was a Baptist and preached the Bible to fellow slaves who called him “The Prophet.”
He even had white folks at his sermons before the law required them to be there.
Many were reported to have “…turned from their wickedness…” after hearing him preach.
By 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, a spirit appeared and he claimed “…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.”
Just in case, the Serpent represents the Devil, Satan, Old Scratch…umkay?
Turner believed he was on a mission from God.
Starting with a few fellow slaves whom he trusted, they created a way to communicate their plan without their owners finding out.
They used songs, stories, and folk tales.
Using knives to carry out their attacks to keep from gunshot noise alerting neighbors, the band went on a killing spree that did not spare anyone in the way; men, women, children.
Turner, when caught, confessed to killing only one person, Margaret Whitehead. He killed her with a blow to the head with a fence post.
Before authorities could mobilize and respond, 60 whites were dead.
Turner’s band spared poor whites because they “…thought themselves no better than the negros…”
Turner believed the violence would awaken whites to the reality of the brutality of slave-holding – it didn’t.
It took all of two days to suppress the rebellion.
Turner eluded the authorities and escaped.
On October 30, he was discovered hiding in the woods by Benjamin Phipps and was captured.
Thomas Ruffin Gray, an attorney, took Turner’s “confession.” Nat was tried for conspiring to rebel and making insurrection. Convicted and sentenced to death, he was hanged 11.11.1831 in Jerusalem, Virginia and was buried in an unmarked grave.
He went to the gallows believing he was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.