As the new movie "The Birth of a Nation" premieres, we look at the facts of Nat Turner's life and legacy.
By: Chuck Falzone
1 year ago
A new movie premiering this weekend, "The Birth of a Nation," dramatizes the life of Nat Turner and the story of the 1831 slave revolt he led. While the movie will make Turner’s story more familiar to many, it does take liberties with many details. What is the true story of Nat Turner?
Born a slave in Virginia in 1800, Turner grew up devoted to Christianity and led Baptist services for his fellow slaves. As a young man, he began to see visions and receive what he said were divine messages. In the early 1820s, one such revelation caused him to return home after escaping, but less than 10 years later, he had become convinced that God wanted him to rise up against slavery and free his fellow slaves.
On Aug. 13, 1831, Turner saw the sun darken and turn bluish-green. He took this as an important omen that the time had come to act. On Aug. 22, Turner and his followers began going to each house in the area, freeing slaves (many of whom joined the rebellion) and killing nearly all white people they encountered. In all, Turner’s group killed about 60 people before a militia unit viciously ended the rebellion, killing about 200 African-Americans, many of whom were not involved in the rebellion at all. The rebellion lasted less than two full days, but it was important in beginning to move the country toward the Civil War.
In the wake of the rebellion, the state of Virginia tried 50, convicted 30, and executed 18, while another dozen individuals were sold out of state. Turner himself escaped capture for months. Eventually, he was captured, and he was executed Nov. 11, 1831.
Throughout much of U.S. history since his death, Turner has been regarded by many as a terrorist. In the years immediately following the rebellion, Turner's actions were used as a sort of justification for slavery, with writers and politicians arguing that when treated well, slaves benefited from being enslaved. Many others, of course, disagreed. Since the time of the rebellion, African-Americans have portrayed Turner as a hero, the rebellion as a turning point in the struggle for liberation.
The idea that Turner's actions, though extreme, were justified has begun to take hold. "The Birth of a Nation" likely will help cement his place as an ultimately positive figure in our nation's history.