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Nat Turner

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment looks at the slave rebellion of Nat Turner.

Nat Turner

For years before the end of slavery, occasional revolts against it erupted in the South. The first serious planned slave revolt was thwarted by a servant in 1663, the authors of The Negro Almanac write.

The prevalence of these slave revolts refuted the common slave owner argument that captured Africans actually liked slavery. The possibility of insurrection led slave owners to prohibit the playing of drums because they feared slaves would use them to communicate with those on nearby plantations.

The greatest of these revolts occurred in Virginia in 1831, led by a plowman and preacher named Nat Turner. Turner's father had been a slave who escaped to freedom.

Nat Turner believed God called him to a special destiny, similar to the Biblical call Moses followed in leading the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Turner prayed and fasted before deciding he was to conquer Southampton County, Va.

With five followers, he swore to kill all the white people on the nearby plantations, gathering supporters as he advanced from plantation to plantation. Within 48 hours, he had gathered a band of 60 followers.

Many throughout the South were thrown into a panic as Turner's band killed 55 white people in Southampton County. The band planned an attack on Jerusalem, the county seat, but a posse intervened before the attackers reached the town.

Turner escaped and hid in the Dismal Swamp. He was captured six weeks later. He and 16 of his followers were tried and hanged for their parts in the revolt.


Source: Negro Almanac, African-American History

Discussion questions

1. Why was the playing of drums prohibited by law by slaves in some Southern jurisdictions?

2. Some historians and sociologists compare slave revolts to race riots. Discuss the distinctions.

3. Research the insurrections led by John Brown, Denmark Vesey and Gabriel Prosser. Were there similarities in these revolts?