The man known as Nat Turner was born 217 years ago on Oct. 2, 1800 in Southampton County, Va. I should point out that despite the fact that history books refer to this intelligent and literate individual as “Nat Turner,” he, his family, friends and followers never referred to him that way because he refused to acknowledge ownership by Samuel Turner, the man who had purchased him as a child. He refused because he knew, in his heart and soul, he was an African who could never be truly owned.
Nat’s enslaved father escaped when Nat was very young. And his father’s mother at age 13 had been captured in Ghana and was shipped to America. She was a member of the Akan/Coromantee ethnic group, which was notoriously rebellious against European and American enslavement — so much so that a proposed law was introduced in the British colony of Jamaica in 1765 to ban their importation because they were too defiant and too combative. However, it never became law because their physical strength made them potentially excellent laborers.
Although Nat came from a bloodline that advocated warfare in self-defense, he was profoundly religious. In fact, he wrote that he “studiously avoided mixing in society … (by) devoting (his) time to fasting and praying.” His love for Christianity led him to become a pastor, later known as “The Prophet.” Following his escape from slavery in 1821, he returned to the plantation a month afterward because, as he pointed out, the Holy Spirit in a vision told him to.
Four years later, he had another vision, this time while in the work field where, as he reported, he saw “drops of blood on the corn, as though it were dew from heaven, and I communicated it to many, both Black and white …”
In 1828, he had a third vision, and it was in this one in which, as he perfectly recalled, “the Spirit … said the Serpent was loosened and Christ … (stated) I should fight against the Serpent … (and) should … slay my enemies with their own weapons.”
Two years thereafter, he was transported to the home of Joseph Travis who was the new husband of the widow of Thomas Moore, the man who had purchased Nat after Samuel Turner’s death.
In 1831, he received a fourth sign, and this was in the form of a solar eclipse that directed him to strike a serious blow against the Serpent’s slavery. As a result, he informed four compatriots, and together they planned the attack for July 4. But he became ill and it had to be rescheduled.
His final sign came on Aug. 13 with another solar eclipse. It was then that the date of Aug. 21 was set. And it was at 2 a.m. on that date that the 5-foot-8-inch, 160-pound, broad-shouldered, slightly goateed, large-eye Nat and his expanded cadre of six men began their mission, stopping first at the home of the slave-owning Travis family where each of the occupants were executed.
It was during the Aug. 22 midday march toward Jerusalem, Va., that a militia and then state and federal troops moved in on Nat and his soldiers. But Nat and some others escaped, with Nat evading capture for more than two months before being tracked down on Oct. 30.
Less than a week later, on Nov. 5, he was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. And on Nov. 11, he was hanged, skinned, beheaded and quartered, with body parts being dispensed as souvenirs.
Nat and his army — a group that had grown to approximately 70 Blacks, including about 40 enslaved and 30 free (with nearly 300 Blacks suspected of having provided direct or indirect assistance) — justifiably killed 55 whites but mercifully spared many others.
Despite Nat’s death — actually his crucifixion — he put the fear of God in slaveholders throughout the country and his sacrificial heroism ultimately led to the Civil War in 1861 and the 13th Amendment in 1865, both of which, in turn, ultimately led to your and my freedom. Our freedom is his resurrection.
Those who say Nat overreacted must ask what was the alternative. He couldn’t sue for freedom because Blacks had no legal standing in court. He couldn’t go on strike because state legislatures enacted laws across the country, like the 1705 Virginia law, proclaiming that “if any slave resists his master … (and is beaten by his master) and shall happen to be killed …, the master shall be free of all punishment …”
Court decisions were just as bad. In North Carolina v. Mann, for example, the state Supreme Court in 1830 ruled “slave masters have absolute authority over slaves” and cannot be found guilty of any crime committed against them. More than 150 years of scattered racist legislation and court decisions were made uniform in 1857 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott v. Sandford that Blacks have “no rights which the white man was bound to respect …”
Nat did what he had to do, by any means necessary. That’s why you and I — who are in spirit if not in bloodline modern-day Akan/Coromantee — must proudly and enthusiastically shout on Monday, “Happy Birthday, Prophet!”