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Source: From ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SOUTHERN CULTURE edited by Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris Copyright (c) 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.

Nat Turner, 1800?-1831

Turner, Nat (1800-1831) Slave. Born in Southampton County, Va., Turner was a black American slave who led the Southampton insurrection, which has often been seen as the most effective slave rebellion in the South. In recent years, Turner has been a focus of cultural and historical debate.

Turner is the dominant figure among a trio of insurrectionists who led major uprisings, beginning in 1800 with Gabriel Prosser, continuing with Denmark Vesey in 1822, and ending with Turner in 1831. Famous in the folklore and oral history of black Americans, these rebels expressed the powerful urges of blacks to be free. Called "Ol' Prophet Nat" and leader of the most violent of the rebellions, Turner has become an especially vivid figure in the underground history of American slavery.

Turner was born to a black woman owned by a plantation aristocrat also named Turner. Transported from Africa in her youth, Nat Turner's mother imbued in him a passion for freedom. Always dreamy and visionary, he learned to read, probably taught by his master's son, and early displayed strong religious feelings. As an adult he became a preacher among the slaves. Sold by the Turner family to a less prosperous farmer and sold again to a Southampton craftsman named Joseph Travis, Turner bitterly withdrew into religious fantasies marked by omens, signs, and visions. Turner burned for his freedom, but he also saw himself as a savior of his people. Following an eclipse of the sun, taken as a sign from the Lord, Turner and four trusted lieutenants embarked upon the bloody insurrection on the night of 21 August 1831, beginning with the slaughter of the Travis family. By 23 August, when the rebellion was thwarted by militia, Turner's rebels had killed almost 60 white men, women, and children. Turner escaped capture for six weeks, but eventually was caught, tried, and executed, as were some 16 others involved with him.

The cultural debate over Turner was sparked in 1967 by the publication of William Styron's novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967). Though Daniel Panger published Ol' Prophet Nat (1967), it was Styron's best seller that challenged black Americans, historians, and social critics, for it raised questions on Turner, black history, and the "true" character ("Sambo" or "rebel") of the slave in the South. The co-opting of Turner by a white author prompted, for example, a polemical outcry called William Styron's Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968). Coming in the midst of the social revolution of the 1960s, Panger's, Styron's and many others' works devoted to the Southampton Revolt soon made Turner a symbol of "Black Power and social liberation."

James M. Mellard
Northern Illinois University

John B. Duff and Peter M. Mitchell, The Nat Turner Rebellion: The Historical Event and the Modern Controversy (1971); Stephen B. Oates, The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion (1975); Henry L. Tragle, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material (1971).

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