During the early morning hours of August 21, 1831, eight slaves led by lay preacher Nat Turner entered their owner’s home and murdered the entire family. This uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, kicked off the beginning of the bloodiest slave revolt in United States history.
Nat Turner was born a slave on October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia. He was deeply devoted to his Christian faith and believed God spoke to him through visions and signs. One sign compelled him to return to his master after an escape attempt; another inspired the insurrection that would leave at least 55 white people dead.
After Nat and his followers had killed the Travis family, they went from plantation to plantation, slaying every white person they encountered, regardless of age or sex. Eventually, Turner’s band of rebelling slaves numbered 70 or more. A young child who hid from the carnage in a fireplace was one of the very few to survive.
As Turner and his group were heading for the nearby town of Jerusalem, a white militia complete with artillery reinforcement appeared. The rebels scattered, and the insurrection was defeated. Nat Tuner managed to evade capture for two months hiding in the woods of Southampton but was eventually found by a farmer on Halloween. He surrendered peacefully.
His fate was inevitable — he was convicted of insurrection and hanged on November 11.
But the story didn’t end there. Hysteria reigned after the rebellion, and white justice was swift and harsh. The state executed 56 black men, and the militia killed at least 100 more — the number is probably much higher.
The militia beheaded anyone they even suspected was involved in the uprising and stuck their decapitated heads on spikes. Many men who were out-of-state during the rebellion paid with their lives for a crime they couldn’t have possibly committed.
The white folks were clearly scared shitless and retaliated with the sort of violence they condemned unless they were the perpetrators. As always, the hypocrisy escaped all but a few.
On the legal front, the Virginia General Assembly made it a crime for slaves or free blacks to learn to read or write. At the end of the Civil War, the majority of newly free slaves were illiterate.
Additionally, slaves could hold religious services only if a white minister were present. Other southern states quickly followed suit. Of course, all of these measures were to ensure a rebellion like the one Nat Turner headed could never happen again.
After all, if slaves are illiterate and unable to gather, the risk of a future uprising was slim to none.
Naturally, Turner’s methods were unacceptable to white folks who felt it was OK to enslave, rape, and beat their human “property.” Whether you thought Turner was a revolutionary hero or a cold-blooded murderer would largely depend on the amount of melanin in your skin.
Nat Turner lives on as a potent icon against racism and oppression. Turner’s emergence as an inspirational figure for the Black Power movement during the 1960s proved controversial thanks to the same white fragility (I hate that term, but sometimes nothing else works) and convenient pacifism that made an insurrection inevitable in the first place.