A professor of history at Bowdoin College, Patrick Rael is a specialist in African American history. His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (2015), was a finalist for the Harriet Tubman Prize, awarded by the New York Library’s Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. His other works include Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (2002), African American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (2008), and Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (2001). He has written extensively about teaching, has contributed to the development of African American history curricula, and for over a decade has led seminars and workshops on teaching American history in primary and secondary schools.
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.