A state commission planning an anti-slavery monument in downtown Richmond voted Wednesday to include Nat Turner, the leader of a bloody 1831 slave uprising in Southampton County, among a group of 10 African-American figures who will be honored on the statue’s base.
The work on the new statue being done by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Commission has thus far avoided controversy, but the decision to include Turner — seen as a freedom fighter by many and a mass murderer by others — is likely to bring a new level of attention to the planning process for the monument meant to celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of slavery.
Turner was by far the most hotly debated name Wednesday as a panel of state lawmakers and historians tried to select 10 honorees from a list of 30 finalists.
“If nothing else, he’s the bravest black man in that era,” said Charles Withers, a commission member from Roanoke who pushed for Turner’s inclusion. “It’s problematic for me as a black man in modern-day society to stand up sometimes. I can’t imagine the courage that Nat Turner had.”
Making the case against Turner’s inclusion, Lauranett Lee, a professor at the University of Richmond and the founding curator of African-American history at the Virginia Historical Society, said women and children were among the roughly 60 people killed before Turner, a preacher who believed God wanted him to lead slaves against their white owners, was caught and executed. The result of the revolt was a crackdown on African-Americans who had no part in the insurrection, Lee said.
“We have two people who have spoken against having Nat Turner on the monument,” Lee said. “Ultimately, what did Nat Turner’s actions do?”
Turner’s uprising in the summer of 1831, the bloodiest and most prolonged slave revolt in American history, stoked intense fear and anger among whites, some of whom retaliated by killing any African-American they could find. Before he was hanged, Turner spoke at length with attorney Thomas R. Gray, whose pamphlet “The Confessions of Nat Turner” shaped Turner’s place in history.
“The only account we have of what he was thinking was written by a white man who interviewed him,” said Gregg Kimball, director of education and outreach at the Library of Virginia. “And there’s a lot of controversy about what any of that means.”
Other members — including state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan, D-Richmond, the commission chair — argued that the inclusion of Gabriel — a slave who planned a similar uprising outside Richmond three decades before Turner’s rebellion but was hanged before he could act — sufficiently honored the deeds of slave resistance leaders on a monument with limited space. In the end, both Gabriel and Turner made the cut.
SOURCE: GRAHAM MOOMAW