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Or Does It Explode? Nat Turner's Bloody Rebellion

Nick and I are barreling down an old country road in South Hampton County, Virginia. The cotton fields have just been picked; the stray piles of white fluff lying on the side of the road look like cotton candy. We're headed to the home of Mr. Alvin Turner, a direct descendant of the preacher and rebellion leader, Nat Turner.

Nick in front of the district court in Jerusalem
It was along these same country roads almost 170 years ago that Nat Turner and his small army of free men and slaves led a bloody rampage, killing almost every white person in their path. It's not often that murder can be justified, but in the case of Turner and his followers, an uprising was the only way to protest the conditions in which they lived.

Nat Turner's mother was born in Africa. It's tough to say whether the legend is true that she was a queen, kidnapped from the upper Nile region. It is certain that she lived on the two continents of Africa and North America. She hated being a slave, as every human rejects bondage. She was so worried about her son spending his life in slavery that she tried to kill him when he was born.

Turner's great-great-great-(etc.) grandson today
Her fellow slaves kept her from killing the baby and she grew to love little Nat intensely. When she brought him to a slave who had been a medicine man in Africa, he examined markings on Nat's infant body and predicted that he would grow up to be a prophet.

Skip ahead 20 years to 1820. Nat Turner is 20 years old and hiding in the woods a few miles from his plantation. He has almost succeeded in escaping! Freedom is his! All he has to do is keep quiet and cover his body in mud so the dogs can't find him.

Turner was almost caught the first time he escaped
As he sits and listens to a posse of men passing by with barking dogs at their sides, he begins to plot his escape to the North. He'll have to find his way up the Underground Railroad -- he must look for the right signs. Rumor is that abolitionists hang a horseshoe above their doorways. Hundreds of slaves have made it up this secret pathway, and he knows he's smart enough to do the same.

But something is bothering him, tearing at him from the inside. Even though he is on his way to freedom, he feels as though he is headed in the wrong direction. Nat knows that a true Christian lives for others. His individual freedom means nothing without the freedom of his people. After hiding out in the woods for a month, he decides to return to his people -- the black slaves of the Antebellum South.

Teddy talks with two Turner descendents, one big one small
His master was so surprised by Nat's decision to return to the plantation that he did not even beat him. Nat was even allowed to begin preaching, which meant walking around freely from plantation to plantation on Sundays.

Nat Turner took preaching very seriously. He became a powerful speaker, so compelling that even a white man asked to be baptized by him. Turner worked the fields all day as a slave, and spent all his free time digging in the Bible and spreading the Gospel.

Turner came to be seen as a supernatural being. It was said that he could cure sickness with the touch of his hand, and change the weather at will. Even whites looked upon him with awe, though fully confident that he was a docile slave.

They couldn't have been more wrong. Turner was planning a war of apocalyptic proportions. He began to preach about the worst sin of the times, which his listeners knew to be slavery. Here is what Turner had to say about divine inspiration:

"The Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first."
Every Sunday he traveled to a different part of the county, getting to know the back roads and meeting people who might be sympathetic to his cause. He made lists in his head of people who might betray his secret plan and those who would fight behind him. Previous rebellions had been deceived by traitors and had resulted in fruitless deaths. Turner made sure that only the most trusted few learned of his plans.

By January 1831 everything was in place, and Turner waited for a sign from God that it was time to begin his war. That sign came the next month when a major eclipse of the sun occurred. Turner set the date for the rebellion -- Independence Day, July 4th. As the day approached, Turner got a bad feeling about the timing of the uprising and decided to delay it until another sign came. On August 13, the sky darkened into mysterious hues of green and white. No one could explain the strange phenomenon. Stranger still, a small black speck traveled across the surface of the veiled sun. This was the sign, and Turner began what would be the bloodiest and most unsettling slave uprising in American history.

At two o'clock in the morning, the plantation owner who "owned" Turner woke up to a frightening scene. Nat Turner stood above him wielding an axe, which he brought down on his master and his wife in their beds. Turner and his group went on to all the other bedrooms, killing every person, even an infant baby in its crib.

After that, they went on to the slave quarters and freed the slaves. They asked the men to join them in their uprising and many volunteered.

The new, larger group then went to the next plantation and killed the owners in their sleep there, too. They then freed the slaves and asked more to join. As Turner proceeded from plantation to plantation, he slaughtered more whites and his army of free men grew larger.

By daybreak, word had gotten out that a rebellion was occurring, and the Virginia militia was sent out in full force. They ended up stopping Turner's army before it could enter the county seat of Jerusalem. In all, Turner's rebels killed 57 whites, and that's not including one man who dropped dead of a heart attack when he learned about the rebellion. While dozens of black men hung for their involvement in the uprising, as whites reacted violently to the prospect of slaves fighting.

Turner himself avoided capture for two months, hiding out in a cave in the woods. While being tried in Jerusalem, he never showed remorse for the gory acts he committed. To Turner, it was either die for killing his master or allow his master to slowly kill him and his family.

Turner's descendents feel little remorse as well. We reached Alvin Turner's house just before he returned home with his tiny grandson. Alvin brought us around the farm, showing us the log cabin where Nat Turner used to sneak in and get food while he was hiding.

Being related to Nat Turner used to be a family secret -- it was enough to get a black man lynched even in the 1960s. Nowadays, Alvin Turner looks forward to telling his family history to his son and grandson, and making them proud to be connected to such a man.

What do you think? Was Turner justified in killing entire families?

I'm surprised there were not more bloody uprisings like Turner's. When human beings are denied their right to freedom, they are bound to fight whoever is oppressing them. Turner's rebellion was just the tip of the iceberg in the sorrow and hatred that had been building up during three centuries of slavery. The bad medicine of slavery that had been attached to America since its inception was getting rancid. Things were falling apart for Southern plantation owners.


Please email me at: teddy@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - The unluckiest lottery winner
Irene - The real scoop on Spielburg's "Amistad"
Nick - What it means to be a slave: Gabriel's story
MAD - America's shame: A death penality that includes teens