On Tuesday, it will be exactly 187 years ago to the very day that Nat Turner sparked his revolution in 1831 — a revolution, by the way, that was ultimately successful because it helped lay the foundation for the North’s victory in the Civil War by inspiring enslaved Black men to fight back.
The man called Nat Turner, born Oct. 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Va., never accepted that name. Although history books refer to this intelligent and literate individual by that name, he, his family and his friends never referred to him that way because he refused to acknowledge ownership by Samuel Turner, the person who had purchased him as a child. He refused because he knew he was an African who could never be truly owned.
Nat’s enslaved father had escaped when Nat was young. And his father’s mother at age 13 had been captured in Ghana and was shipped to America. She was a member of the Akan ethnic group, in particular the Coromantee, which was notoriously rebellious against European and American enslavement — so much so that a proposed law was introduced in 1765 to ban their importation into the colonies because they were not “docile” enough. However, it never became law because their physical strength made them potentially excellent laborers.
Although Nat came from a bloodline that advocated warfare in self-defense, he was deeply religious. In fact, he wrote that he “studiously avoided mixing in society [by devoting his] time to ... praying.” His love for Christianity led him to become a pastor, later known as “The Prophet.” Following his escape from slavery in 1821, he returned to the plantation a month afterward because, as he said, the Holy Spirit in a vision told him to.
Four years later, he had another vision, this time while in the work field where, as he reported, he saw “drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both Black and white ...” In 1828, he had a third vision, and it was in this one in which, as he recalled, “the Spirit … said the Serpent was loosened and Christ [stated] I should fight against the Serpent [and should] slay my enemies with their own weapons.”
He was transported in 1830 to the home of Joseph Travis, the new husband of the widow of Thomas Moore, the man who had purchased Nat when Samuel Turner died.
A year afterward, he received a fourth sign, and this was in the form of a solar eclipse directing him to strike a serious blow against the Serpent’s slavery. Accordingly, he informed four compatriots, and together they planned the attack for July 4. But an illness caused him to reschedule it.
His final sign came on Aug. 13 in the form of another solar eclipse. It was then that the date of Aug. 21, 1831, was set. And it was at 2 a.m. on that date that the 5-foot-8, 160-pound, broad-shouldered, slightly goateed, large-eye Nat and his expanded cadre of six men began their mission, stopping first at the home of the slave-owning Travis family, where each occupant was executed.
The next day, during their march toward Jerusalem, Va., he and his rebels were confronted by a militia and then state and federal troops. But he and some others escaped, with Nat evading capture for more than two months before being tracked down.
Less than a week later, on Nov. 5, he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. And on Nov. 11, he was hanged, skinned, beheaded and quartered, with body parts dispensed as souvenirs.
Following his beheading, Nat’s skull — or what is reportedly his skull (shown in the photograph above) — was delivered to a local medical examiner. Sometime thereafter, it went missing. And miraculously in 2002, it was donated to the Civil Rights Institute and Hall of Fame in Gary, Ind., after having been in the possession of a man who said it was passed down in his family for three generations.
The man stated it was given to his grandfather who had been a physician in Richmond, Va., around 1900 by a patient who inherited it from her father who “handled” Nat’s body post-mortem. One of Turner’s descendants reached out to the institute’s founder, who was also that city’s former mayor, Richard Hatcher, and requested the skull. Hatcher happily complied.
Nat and his guerrilla army — a group that had grown to approximately 70, including about 40 enslaved and 30 free (with nearly 300 suspected of providing direct or indirect assistance) — ultimately killed 55 whites but spared many others. Despite Nat’s death, he was ultimately victorious in freeing you and me.
Those who say Nat overreacted must ask what was the alternative. He couldn’t sue for freedom because Blacks had no legal standing in court. He couldn’t go on strike because state legislatures enacted laws, like the 1705 one in Virginia, proclaiming that “if any slave resists his master … (and is beaten by his master) and shall ... be killed … the master shall be free of all punishment.”
Court decisions were just as bad. In North Carolina v. Mann, for example, the state Supreme Court in 1830 ruled “slave masters have absolute authority over slaves” and cannot be found guilty of any crime committed against them. Racist legislation and court decisions were made uniform in 1857 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” That old legal system sounds like today’s legal system in terms of Blacks getting no courthouse justice, doesn’t it?
If Nat could have engaged in peaceful revolution by peacefully protesting, peacefully petitioning and peacefully relying on the system to do the right thing, he would have. But America’s brutal slave system, which was created by its racist legal system, wouldn’t allow that. Therefore, his actions were not only inevitable but necessary. As President John F. Kennedy famously said in 1962, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
I mentioned that Nat was a pastor. In fact, the man known during that time as “The Prophet” and “Reverend” almost always carried his Bible (shown in the photograph above) with him and had it in his possession when he was captured on Oct. 30, 1831.
In the spirit of Nat’s battle against slavery, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) will hold its annual birth of slavery commiseration event on Aug. 20, which many historians have documented as the beginning of slavery 399 years ago in 1619. ATAC’s event, starting at 12 p.m., will take place at the Slavery Memorial/President’s House at Sixth and Market. For more information, contact ATAC at (215) 552-8751.