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Nat Turner

Nat Turner

To many slaves and free blacks in the early 1800s, Nathaniel “Nat” Turner was a hero who displayed extraordinary courage and cunning when he led a slave rebellion in hopes to free his brethren from bondage and despair.

For some, however, Turner was an instigator who orchestrated the violent slave insurrection that led to the deaths of hundreds of blacks, the end to the region’s emancipation movement and the tightening of laws against slaves.

A lifelong Virginia resident who was born into slavery, Turner’s owner allowed him to learn reading, writing and religion at an early age. Turner soon became a self-taught preacher, proclaimed a “prophet” by his fellow slaves because of his high intellect and ability to describe events that occurred before he was born.

Never be a good slave

But the slaves also noticed Turner’s rebellious nature as a child and remarked that “he would never be of service to anyone as a slave.”

In one of the country’s bloodiest slave rebellions, Turner led a small band of slaves to revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, during the summer of 1831. Although not quite 30, Turner had long preached to slaves about self-respect, having the courage to stand up for justice and the will to fight endlessly against the institution of slavery.

Within the first two days of the uprising, Turner and his followers killed between 55 and 65 whites, including the white family that owned Turner.

Turner’s number of supporters grew to about 70 members within 48 hours, according to some estimates, as they roamed the region, garnering weapons, horses and supplies from their victims.

At the end of the second day of the insurrection, Turner’s liberators were overpowered by a superior state and federal military force. Although Turner escaped, more than 100 blacks were killed during the clash. Dozens more blacks were arrested and executed.

Turner was captured nearly two months later while hiding in the woods. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to death. Although he admitted to his role in leading the slave uprising, he defiantly pleaded “not guilty” at his trial.

On Nov. 11, 1831, he was executed.

Turner’s legacy still stirs debate from those who regard him as a champion who urged slaves to stand up for their rights through resistance and made slave owners pay for their treatment of slaves. Still, another faction is critical of the tactics he used, as well as the additional hardships slaves had to endure when the uprising ended.



avynyet thurgood marshall james smallwood