History August 18, 2019 at 09:01 am

3 significant events in August that shaped the early black experience in the West

Deidre Gantt August 18, 2019 at 09:01 am

August 18, 2019 at 09:01 am | History

Nat Turner’s Rebellion (August 21, 1831)

Forty years to the day that Haitians took up arms against their enslavers, a plantation preacher in Virginia made his stand in Southampton, Virginia. His name was Nat Turner. He was born into slavery, having inherited his status from his mom, Nancy, who had been captured in Africa. He learned to read and as a young adult, he was hired out by his slaveholder to preach a proslavery form of the Christian gospel on plantations throughout his area. He was struck by a series of religious visions that led him to believe he was chosen to lead his people through a race war and out of slavery. He planned to begin on July 4, 1831, America’s independence day, but he fell ill and had to postpone his plans. After a final vision in August, Turner gathered his men and declared the time had come to rise up against enslavement.

Starting with six men by his side, over the next two days Turner’s army grew to more than 70 people. What ensued was not America’s biggest slave insurrection (that distinction belongs to the German Coast uprising in 1811 in Louisiana), but it was the deadliest. When it ended, 55 whites had been killed on plantations between Southampton and Jerusalem, Virginia. By many accounts, Nat’s patchwork army had heart but lacked discipline and training, which was crucial in the United States, where Blacks were outnumbered by whites (unlike the Caribbean and South American nations where Blacks made up a sizable majority). As was so often the case with enslaved uprisings, however, their attempt to fight for freedom was ultimately sold out when one of their fellow Blacks alerted his “slave master” who, of course, sent word to the government and other slaveholders.

Once they learned of the uprising, the whites’ response was swift, brutal and excessive. While law enforcement rounded up the participants, mobs rounded up and killed hundreds of Blacks in Virginia and North Carolina, many of whom had no knowledge of or involvement with the uprising. After two months of hiding, Nat Turner was discovered and upon being tried and found guilty in the Virginia courts, his body was mutilated and his severed head displayed with his co-conspirators on stakes along the road. He had frightened the white plantation owners so badly that the state legislature considered abolishing slavery in the state. Instead, the planters used their political influence to pass stronger laws restricting the rights of both enslaved and free Blacks in the state of Virginia and elsewhere in the expanding nation.


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