If you don’t know who he is, you are not alone. He is rarely mentioned in traditional American history books. If you know of him, it is most likely through an African American History class.
So, here’s the short version: Nat Turner was a slave born in Virginia in 1800. He was accused of leading a slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831. He was tried that same year for insurrection and the murders of more than 50 white people.
Following his alleged confession in court—which was read by his attorney, Thomas Gray, at the trial—Turner was hanged (but not before Gray published Turner’s confession in a pamphlet called The Confessions of Nat Turner. Turner’s revolt is considered to be the only successful one on U.S soil.
Gray’s pamphlet has become the primary source for all the books written about Turner (including William Styron’s novel of the same name)—all except for Irvin Tragle’s book, The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material.
When I finally admitted to myself that I was going to write about Nat Turner, I began a quest to find the transcript of Nat Turner’s trial.
Part of me believed the records might exist. A more rational part of me said the search was foolish—everything I needed to know was in Nat Turner’s confession. After all, it was unlikely that trial records still existed—not for a slave trial conducted in 1831. Even if I were able to find a document, it was likely be molding, moth-eaten and crumbling, tucked away in someone’s attic.
But the quiet, insistent voice wouldn’t let me rest. I set up a google alert so that each time Nat Turner was mentioned in the news I would receive an email. After almost a year, I was about to give up and turn off the alert—my email box was busting at the seams. But just before I clicked it away, the last email provided a connection that eventually led me to the Southampton County Courthouse.
What I found there changed the direction of my writing and the way I view Nat Turner.
Take a listen to more of the interview I did with Regina Gail Malloy.
More about my search next time; until then: Let the truth rise.