Did Nat Turner “Confess”?

Lecture Description

In Southampton County, Virginia in August 1831, an enslaved African American led one of the bloodiest slave rebellions in American history, slaughtering some five dozen whites, children and women included. Local militia quickly responded, in the process executing or punishing hundreds of African Americans, many completely unconnected to the rebellion.

Most of what we know about the rebellion comes from the “confession” Turner narrated to Thomas Gray, a slaveholding attorney in the county who published the document in an effort to satisfy widespread curiosity. Generations have wrestled with this complicated work. Some have found in it nothing more than a violent religious fanatic, others a prototypical black nationalist.

Rael will explore the Turner rebellion in history and in memory: What was Turner’s intent, and how did it fit with other instances of slave rebellion in the Atlantic world? Why did he save himself, and why relate his story? Rael will offer a new interpretation of the Turner’s purpose, and assess the significance of the rebellion for the national argument over slavery then underway. Ultimately, he argues, one of the least overtly “political” of all slave rebellions had political consequences that led to the breakdown of the union, and the civil war that set African Americans free.


Civil War and Reconstruction Slavery

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