My sister urged me to watch the 2016 film, Birth of a Nation, starring Nate Parker. If anyone knows anything about me, you know slavery movies are not particulary my favorite. I set some time aside to watch Birth of a Nation because I had one question: How did Nate Turner Become the Best Black Abolitionist? I was also curious to see how Hollywood would depict the Southampton County, Virginia born man who led the most significant rebellion in the history of American slavery.
Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800, and lived as a slave 31-years. Nat Turner’s Revolt, launched in southern Virginia in August 1831, where he and other blacks held in captivity attempted to overthrow the slave regime that had dominated Chesapeake society for more than 150 years. Five days after Turner was born, Virginia authorities executed Gabriel Prosser, a slave blacksmith who had plotted an uprising in nearby Richmond.
‘‘Saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle.’’
As a boy, Nat must have heard stories about this legendary rebel. Turner’s African-born mother, it is believed, saw her intelligent son as ‘‘intended for some great purpose.’’ She noted ‘‘certain marks’’ on his head and chest, and she marveled when he related events that had occurred before his birth. The precocious boy built up a strong faith, combining African beliefs from his mother’s world with the Christian faith of slave owner, Benjamin Turner.1)By the time he reached his mid-twenties, Turner had belonged to three masters. When his latest owner, Thomas Moore, died in 1828, Nat became the property of the man’s nine-year-oldson, Putnam Moore. In 1830, Putnam Moore’s widowed mother married a local carriage maker named Joseph Travis. He learned to read, memorized passages of scripture, and felt that he was specially chosen to destroy the oppressive slave system.
Turner claimed that once, while plowing in a field with his mind wandering in prayer, he was addressed by the same ‘‘Spirit’’ that ‘‘spoke to the prophets in former days’’2)(Greenberg 2003, p. 46). In a powerful vision, Turner ‘‘saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened—the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams.’’ Other visions suggested that it was time for Nat to take up that yoke himself ‘‘and fight against the Serpent’’.3)(Greenberg 2003, pp. 46–48) When a solar eclipse occurred in February 1831, Nat interpreted the dramatic event as a sign that he must commence his work. He laid plans with others to act on the holiday of July 4, but when he fell ill the date was allowed to pass. Then, on August 13, when a summer haze changed the color of the sun, Turner took this as an additional sign. He notified a handful of trusted captive blacks to join him for a meeting on August 21, a Sunday.
The men gathered in the woods near the Travis homestead, and within hours they moved through the vicinity, killing white inhabitants regardless of age or sex. After securing more horses and weapons, they planned to march on Jerusalem, the county seat, and take the arsenal, which would give them a substantial beachhead. According to the Richmond Enquirer, Turner made it clear that ‘‘indiscriminate slaughter was not their intention after they obtained a foothold, and was resorted to in the first instance to strike terror and alarm. Women and children would afterwards have been spared, and men too who ceased to resist’’.4)(Higginson 1861, p. 177)
Several hours after midnight, Turner and five others proceeded with their plan, attacking the homes of slave owners, proceeding on to other farmsteads to wreak similar vengeance. By Monday night, sixty or seventy African Americans had joined the cause, and on Tuesday morning Turner’s army set out for Jerusalem. Behind them at least fifty-seven whites of all ages had been killed over a stretch of twenty miles.
When some rebels stopped to refresh themselves at a farm three miles from Jerusalem, the pause proved fatal. The militia managed to attack the insurgents, who were off guard and poorly armed. Turner never regained the initiative, and with his supporters killed or dispersed, he went into hiding. By midweek, the militia had received reinforcements from Richmond; frightened and vindictive white soldiers and volunteers launched a harsh and indiscriminate offensive throughout the region. Local militia crushed the uprising, and violent reprisals spread across the region, resulting in the massacre of hundreds of enslaved Africans. One cavalry company slaughtered forty blacks in two days, and they mounted more than a dozen severed heads atop poles as public warnings. But Turner himself evaded authorities for six weeks.
After an enormous manhunt, authorities captured the rebel leader in a local swamp on October 30. Turner was lynched on November 11, 1831.5)Days before the public hanging, a young lawyer named Thomas Ruffin Gray managed to interview the insurgent in his jail cell, and he later published the account as The Confessions of Nat Turner. The text has a ring of truth and provides much of what is known about Turner and his motives. For southern whites, Turner’s Revolt underscored the high costs and constant risks of preserving race slavery indefinitely. For black and white abolitionists in the North, the rebellion reinforced the idea, later espoused by John Brown, that enslaved southerners were willing and able to rebel, needing only weapons and outside support. For black Virginians, ‘‘Nat Turner’s War’’ was seen as the first major armed conflict in the long struggle to end slavery.
Turner’s uprising forced Virginia’s legislature to consider openly, if briefly, a proposal for gradual emancipation. It revived the colonization movement, which many whites saw as a way to remove dangerous bondsmen and reduce the free black community. The uprising also prompted tighter restrictions on black preaching and greater caution regarding slave access to the Gospel. Among African Americans, Turner became, and has remained, both a martyr and a folk hero.
-Davis, Mary Kemp. 1999. Nat Turner before the Bar of Judgment: Fictional Treatments of the Southampton Insurrection. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
-Greenberg, Kenneth S. 1996. The Confessions of Nat Turner and Related Documents. Boston: Bedford Books. ———, ed. 2003. Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
-Higginson, T. W. ‘‘Nat Turner’s Insurrection.’’ The Atlantic Monthly 8: 46 (August 1861): 173–187.
-Oates, Stephen B. 1975. The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner’s Fierce Rebellion. New York: Harper and Row.
-Tragle, Henry Irving. 1971. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material, Including the Full Text of ‘‘The Confessions of Nat Turner.’’ Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
-Wood, Peter H. 1988. ‘‘Nat Turner: The Unknown Slave as Visionary Leader.’’ In Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century, edited by Leon Litwack and August Meier, 21–40. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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|1.||↑||By the time he reached his mid-twenties, Turner had belonged to three masters. When his latest owner, Thomas Moore, died in 1828, Nat became the property of the man’s nine-year-oldson, Putnam Moore. In 1830, Putnam Moore’s widowed mother married a local carriage maker named Joseph Travis.|
|2.||↑||(Greenberg 2003, p. 46).|
|3.||↑||(Greenberg 2003, pp. 46–48)|
|4.||↑||(Higginson 1861, p. 177)|
|5.||↑||Days before the public hanging, a young lawyer named Thomas Ruffin Gray managed to interview the insurgent in his jail cell, and he later published the account as The Confessions of Nat Turner. The text has a ring of truth and provides much of what is known about Turner and his motives.|