Black HIStory: Nat Turner

Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (b. October 2, 1800 – d. November 11, 1831)

Today’s Black History feature highlights revoltist and former American slave Nat Turner. Turner led a slave rebellion in Virginia on August 21, 1831 that resulted in 56 deaths among their victims. Turner was convicted, sentenced to death, and executed. He gathered his supporters in Southampton County, Virginia.

“In the aftermath, the state executed 56 blacks accused of being part of Turner’s rebellion. Two hundred additional blacks were beaten and killed, as part of overreaction by white militias and mobs. Virginia and other southern states passed legislation reducing rights of free blacks and slaves. Across the South, state legislators passed new laws prohibiting education of slaves and free blacks, restricting rights of assembly and other civil rights for free blacks, and requiring white ministers to be present at black worship services.”

“At birth, Turner’s master recorded only his given name, Nat, although he may have had a last name within the enslaved community. In accordance with common practice, the whites referred to him by the last name of his owner, Samuel Turner. This practice was continued by historians.

Having learned to read and write at a young age, Nat was intelligent. He grew up deeply religious and was often seen fasting, praying, or immersed in reading the stories of the Bible.

He frequently had visions that he interpreted as messages from God. “These visions greatly influenced his life; for instance, when Turner was 23 years old, he ran away from his owner, but returned a month later after having such a vision.”

By early 1828, Turner was convinced that he “was ordained for some great purpose in the hands of the Almighty.” While working in his owner’s fields on May 12, Turner “heard a loud noise in the heavens, 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.”

Turner was convinced that God had given him the task of “slay[ing] my enemies with their own weapons.” Turner “communicated the great work laid out for me to do, to four in whom I had the greatest confidence” – his fellow slaves Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam.

Beginning in February 1831, Turner came to believe that certain atmospheric conditions were to be interpreted as a sign that he should begin preparing for a rebellion against the slave owners.

On February 12, 1831, an annular solar eclipse was seen in Virginia. Turner saw this as a black man’s hand reaching over the sun, and he took this vision as his sign. The rebellion was initially planned for July 4, Independence Day, but was postponed for more deliberation between him and his followers, and illness. On August 13, there was another solar eclipse, in which the sun appeared bluish-green (possibly from debris deposited in the atmosphere by an eruption of Mount Saint Helens). Turner took this occasion as the final signal, and a week later, on August 21, he began the rebellion.

Turner started with a few trusted fellow slaves. The rebels traveled from house to house, freeing slaves and killing the white people they found. The rebels ultimately included more than 70 enslaved and free blacks.

Because the rebels did not want to alert anyone to their presence as they carried out their attacks, they initially used knives, hatchets, axes, and blunt instruments instead of firearms. The rebellion did not discriminate by age or sex, until it was determined that the rebellion had achieved sufficient numbers. Nat Turner only confessed to killing one of the rebellion’s victims, Margret Whitehead, who he killed with a blow from a fence post.

Before a white militia was able to respond, the rebels killed 55 men, women, and children. They spared a few homes “because Turner believed the poor white inhabitants ‘thought no better of themselves than they did of negroes.’”

The rebellion was suppressed within two days, but Turner eluded capture until October 30, when he was discovered hiding in a hole covered with fence rails. On November 5, 1831, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Turner was hanged on November 11 in Jerusalem, Virginia, now known as Courtland, Virginia. His body was flayed, beheaded and quartered.

Turner is regarded as a hero by some African Americans and pan-Africanists worldwide.


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