When Nat Turner led a slave revolt in 1831 in Southhampton County, his action stirred fear and controversy. The revolt led to the death of over 50 White people.
To this day, Turner’s place in Virginia history has been a source of debate.
Whites whose ancestors were Turner’s victims say he led a murderous rampage, killing many adults and children who did not own slaves.
African-Americans, and like-minded historians, call Turner’s action a “rebellion” to free his people from brutal slavery.
Those rivaling assessments of Turner’s legacy played out again last week during the meeting of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Commission.
After a year of collecting over of 90 nominees, narrowed down to 30 semifinalists, the panel last week selected the final 10 names to be highlighted on a monument honoring the Emancipation Proclamation.
The commission is composed of 18 lawmakers and historians. A working group did most of the work of selecting nominees and vetting them to allow the commission to cast the final decision.
The panel chose five Virginians who worked to help free Black people before the proclamation was issued in 1863 and five others who worked to empower freed Blacks after the Civil War, which ended slavery.
Turner, the slave preacher turned rebel leader, was among five pre-emancipation proclamation selectees along with Gabriel Prosser, who also planned rebellion which was revealed before it took place in 1800.
Some members of the general public and those on the commission did not believe Turner should have been selected, according to members present and an article in the Richmond Times Dispatch.
“If nothing else, he’s the bravest Black man in that era,” said Charles Withers, a commission member from Roanoke who pushed forTurner’s inclusion. “It’s problematic for me as a Black man in modern-day society to stand up sometimes. I can’t imagine the courage that Nat Turner had.”
Making the case against Turner’s inclusion, Lauranett Lee, a professor at the University of Richmond and the founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, said women and children were among the roughly 60 people killed before Turner was caught and executed.
The result of the revolt was a crackdown on Blacks who had no part in the insurrection, Lee said.
“We have two people who have spoken against having Nat Turner on the monument,” Lee said. “Ultimately, what did Nat Turner’s actions do?”
Commission Chair, State Senator Jennifer McClellan, was one of only two non-commission members to express opposition to Turner being included on the Monument. Their positions were expressed in e-mails, not at any of the public hearings the panel held soliciting names to go on it.
Turner’s uprising in the summer of 1831 was the bloodiest and most prolonged slave revolt in American history, stoking intense fear and anger among Whites, some of whom retaliated by killing any Black they could find. Before he was hanged, Turner spoke at length with attorney Thomas R. Gray, whose pamphlet “The Confessions of Nat Turner” shaped Turner’s place in history.
“The only account we have of what he was thinking was written by a white man who interviewed him,” said Gregg Kimball, director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia. “And there’s a lot of controversy about what any of that means.”
Other members, including the commission chair, argued that the inclusion of Gabriel, a slave who planned a similar uprising outside Richmond three decades before Turner’s rebellion but was hanged before he could act sufficiently, honored the deeds of slave resistance leaders on a monument with limited space.
In the end, she supported both Gabriel and Turner to be included on the monument.
In addition to Gabriel and Turner, the other pre-emancipation honorees chosen are Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a pro-Union spy who passed secrets from inside the Confederate White House; Dred Scott, a Virginia-born slave who sued for his freedom and sparked the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision that found Blacks were not citizens in the eyes of the law; and William Harvey Carney, a Norfolk native who was purchased out of slavery and fought in the first Black military unit organized in the North.
The five post-emancipation honorees are John Mercer Langston, a Louisa County native who was the country’s first African-American elected official; the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a Petersburg civil rights activist who served as chief of staff to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Lucy F. Simms, a former slave who went on to become a pioneering Black educator in the Shenandoah Valley; Rosa Dixon Bowser, an advocate for Black women, children and teachers who founded the Richmond Woman’s League; and John Mitchell Jr., the publisher of the Richmond Planet, which fought against Jim Crow, and was the first African-American to run for governor.
The statue which is scheduled to be erected on Brown’s Island by 2019 will consist of two bronze figures, one male and one female, representing anonymous slaves freed from bondage. The base will feature the names and faces of the 10 historical figures who advanced the cause of freedom.
The project’s total estimated budget is $800,000, which is expected to be paid for by a mix of public and private funds. The General Assembly has set aside $500,000 for the monument.
According to McClellan, the commission originally planned to honor eight people, but widened the plan to five. Depending on the extra costs for adding more people, the total list of honorees could be cut back to the original eight instead of 10.
Turner and Mitchell were identified as the two people who would be dropped in the unlikely event the project is scaled back.
“It was significant to me that there were those who spoke against (Turner), so there was contention among the public as far as whether or not he should be there,” said Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg. “There was none in regards to Gabriel.”
Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton, said the hostility toward Turner could be explained by the fact that his rebellion was successful and Gabriel’s was not.
“My support for him is based upon the fact that this is an individual who carried out his opposition to the institution of slavery,” Locke said. “People were talking about how happy folks were on these plantations; there was no resistance to the institution. And he begged to differ.”
By Leonard E. Colvin