Nat Turner: A Slave Rebellion in History and Memory

By Kenneth S. Greenberg | Go to book overview

SIX
A Prophet in His Own Land
Support for Nat Turner and His Rebellion within Southampton's
Black Community
PATRICK H. BREEN

In August of 1831 Nat Turner and a handful of men began a slave rebellion that left about 60 whites dead. Southern Virginia fell into chaos and terror spread throughout the South as whites wondered about the extent of the rebellion and the danger that their human property posed. Within six months, Virginia's house of delegates debated the propriety of slavery and considered emancipation schemes. Black people worried about their safety as bands of white men roved panic-stricken portions of the South seeking revenge, often with little concern for distinguishing the partisans of Nat Turner from bystanders whose only crime was their black skin. These responses to the rebellion have overshadowed any careful examination of the support that Nat Turner received in America's most famous slave rebellion.

Whites tried to reassure themselves that Nat Turner's rebellion was an anomaly with little latent black support. After all, the United States had a history remarkably devoid of slave rebellions of the sort that leveled parts of the Caribbean and Latin America. Indeed, many slaveholding Americans had viewed the apparent docility of their slaves as a sign of the virtue of their system. Concerns about black loyalty yielded to stories that white Southerners told themselves about their docile, loyal slaves. Kenneth S. Greenberg notes that many white reports of the day puzzled over why some Southampton blacks chose to rebel: “In several accounts of the episode, whites even seemed to have made the sun rather than any human agency responsible for the entire episode.” Many whites who understood that the rebellion was not simply an act of nature focused their attention on those slaves who apparently provided no succor to the rebels. In a

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