By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The anniversary of the Nat Turner-led Rebellion will be marked this week (August 21), and 184 years after it took place, it still resonates historically with Blacks and Whites for different reasons.
Turner led a rebellion of Black slaves in the area of Courtland, Virginia (formerly Jerusalem) in South Hampton County.
It resulted in the death of 60 men, women and children of White slave-holding families in that community on August 21, 1831.
Turner escaped and hid out in the Dismal Swamp until he was captured on October 30, 1831. He was tried and convicted on November 5, and was executed six days later.
In total, 56 Blacks suspected of having been involved in the uprising were executed. But in the hysteria of aroused fears and anger in the days after the rebellion, White militias and mobs killed an estimated 200 free Blacks mostly men who were not involved in the revolt.
Many books and articles which have been written about the incident reveal opposing views.
For some, it was a rebellion-revolt planned and staged by people seeking freedom, which was the basis for the creation of a nation where “all men are created equal,” except for Black men, women and children.
For others, especially the families of the victims, it was a violent insurrection.
According to NSU History Professor and author Dr. Cassandra Newby-Alexander, the rebellion in South Hampton County was the most successful, but not the first.
Research indicates there were at least 250 such events during the era of slavery in America, but only 34 were reported.
“There were many conspiracies and rebellions, but they were written out of the books for fear they would inspire others,” said Newby-Alexander. “There was an effort to characterize slaves accepting their plight.”
The first one was at San Miguel de Gualdape, the initial and short-lived Spanish settlement in the North America founded in 1526.
There were others successful and rebuffed in New York City, Vera Cruz, Mexico, South Carolina and Jamaica.
From 1791-1804, the revolt in Haiti, led by freed Blacks, was a successful rebellion which inspired Gabriel Prosser, a literate enslaved Blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in Richmond in 1800.
Information regarding the revolt was leaked prior to its execution, and he and 25 followers were taken captive and hanged in punishment.
The Haitian revolt, Dr. Newby-Alexander said, set the oppressive, neglectfully diplomatic and economic policy tinplate the United States imposed on Haiti, which has had dreadful effects.
Dr. Tommy Bogger, NSU Archivist, who has written about and toured the area where the 1831 revolt took place, said that after Turner, Whites reinforced “draconian” laws and policies to oppress the movement and activities of freed Blacks, especially.
“They made life miserable for them and many left for other parts of the state, including Norfolk,” said Bogger. “When Liberia was founded, many freed Blacks including those from South Hampton County, migrated to the country for freedom and to apply skills they had acquired while slaves.”
Richard Francis is the Clerk of Courts and a member of the South Hampton County Historical Society.
He said the community is planning to bolster the legacy of the Turner Rebellion as an important part of that community’s historic legacy, including developing a more definable historic trial.
Francis, who is White, said at least 30 of his ancestors died during the revolt.
“Regardless of race, it still resonates,” said Francis. “For Whites, the idea of insurrection by a crazy man; for Blacks, the fight for freedom or the religious aspects.
Dr. E. Curtis Alexander is the curator of the Bells Mills Historian Society in Chesapeake which has worked to reveal the Black history of Norfolk County and Black Civil War soldiers.
Alexander said although the Turner Rebellion resonates for Blacks, White academics and some activists, for varying reasons, it does not for the average person.
“It’s not taught in the schools. Blacks do not discuss it among themselves as an important part of their history … unless they are apologizing for it,” said Alexander. “Few have toured the area where it took place or educated themselves on its cause. We are still debating whether it was a rebellion or insurrection.”
Alexander said, “It should resonate with Black people today because Turner got tired of being a slave and said enough was enough and Black lives and freedom did matter.”