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With an economic downturn, Virginia slavery became more vicious. In 1818,

 with the corn prices declining and the soil ruined by tobacco and poor soil

management, more and more slaveowners began to see their slaves

as "black gold," that which could be traded in a financial crisis,

without consideration of family life or attachments.

 

 

Section 2, Chapter 8 Coming to Grips with In justice & Corruption

Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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Growing into Spiritual Manhood—1810-1823

Nathaniel's Recognition of Southampton Slave Reality

 

In 1810, a brutal change occurred in Nathaniel’s plantation status. About forty-four years old, Benjamin Turner died. His testament (Deed Book 14, p. 81) willed Nathaniel, his fellow servants, and 360 acres of land to John Clark’s older brother Samuel Turner, who became also a trustee of Turner’s Methodist Church (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, tapes 1-2).

In 1809, Samuel Turner, about twenty-one years old, was about twelve years older than his younger brother John Clark. Benjamin Turner’s death forced the two young boys, Nathaniel and John Clark, each to go his different way to start a new life. The death of a master was a cataclysmic event, as turbulent and destructive as any natural disaster.

According to F. Roy Johnson, "All thirty of the old master’s thirty slaves were divided between their mistress [Elizabeth] and her five children. Nathaniel, his mother, and six other blacks—Sam, Lydia, Drew, Chary [spelled also, C-h-e-r-r-y], Miver, and Elick were already in the possession of Samuel Turner, the oldest son" (The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, p. 27).

Whatever John Clark inherited from his father, which he would not receive until he came of age, did not approach what Samuel received by the law of patrimony, that is, the greater part of the estate. In this manner, the patriarchal system of Virginia’s slavocracy disinherited those born after the oldest son. John Clark as a child, was probably as befuddled as Nathaniel by the events that followed Benjamin Turner’s sudden death..

At this stage, Nathaniel Turner, ten years old, had not a glimmer of the world that awaited him. He had not yet reached puberty. He was still fairly free spirited; he was a child who had to be taught to be a slave. The economic-minded Samuel Turner, Benjamin Turner’s oldest son, would be his guide into that hell that was slavery. We do not know fully Samuel Turner’s regard for the little Christian slave child who became a part of the Turner household. When Nathaniel was born, Samuel Turner was about thirteen years old.

Any adolescent would probably have viewed such a child as an intruder, especially a child who attracted so much attention and approval, especially from his father Benjamin Turner. The death of the father must have caused many resentments to rise to the surface, among both the black and white Turners. Doubtless the separation of John Clark and Nathaniel Turner was the only means by which Nathaniel could fulfill his destiny as a prophet, an apostle of what Malcolm X praised as that "old-time religion."

Benjamin Turner was no longer present to indulge Nathaniel, the miracle child, and his intellectual attainments. He had been a central figure in the Turner household. Samuel Turner, his new master, had no intent to indulge him. Like Harriet, while Ben Turner lived, Nathaniel was a house servant, a house boy. As a slave of Samuel Turner, a third-generation Methodist and slaveholder, that was no longer possible. Though Benjamin Turner expanded his ownership of slaves at his own father’s death, the moral wrongs of slavery still disturbed his sensibilities.

From Nathaniel’s child perspective, Benjamin Turner had not become a coarse slaveholder. In Sam Turner’s generation, however, the moral dilemma of slavery resolved itself on the economic side. Having fewer slaves than his father before him, Sam Turner needed farm hands. There was a downturn in the Virginia economy. Like other slave children, at ten to twelve, Nathaniel was introduced to field work and then the plow.

Naturally, the boy Nat felt a measure of resentment, maybe even hatred. For Sam Turner denied Nat that essential right needed by every human being: a viable choice. In his World Justice article John Francis Maxwell pointed out definitively the horror at the core of slavery: "The slave, man, woman or child is deprived of the natural vocational right to arrange and live his own life, to choose his own vocation, his own work, his own leisure-recreation. This state of deprivation is the necessary consequence of being in the ownership of a master who can transfer him, by sale and purchase, to another master" ("The Development of Catholic Doctrine Concerning Slavery," p. 189). 

One man’s inheritance becomes another man or woman or child’s undeserved disinheritance and displacement. Nat’s intimacy with John Clark, which had the tenor of one brother for another, was also undermined and his opportunities to study formally ceased.

Conscious of plantations rumors and his own complexion, Turner may have felt deep down that he too was a "son" of Ben Turner—the bastard son, disinherited. That tormenting state of not knowing who the father is, as is evident in Fred Douglass’1845 Narrative, must have been a prevalent phenomena among many young Christian male slaves, even to those who had much less on which to base their suspicions.

Patriarchy when injudicious has always generated discontent, intrigue, and fratricide. In such mythic contests for power, "legitimacy" is always a central question. By this time, Tom, his spiritual father, had run away and escaped. Turner was alone in a male world with none to intercede.

Nathaniel Turner learned, however, that which can not be dismissed must be borne. The plow gave the boy Nathaniel solitude and the opportunity to develop his spiritual as well as his physical gifts. He developed great upper-body strength, endurance, and determination. The drudgery and monotony of farm work gave him hours of silence to study his thoughts and feelings and his place in the world. With his regard ever on God and righteousness, Turner learned, as other wise men before him, when one road becomes blocked, faith finds another. That is, fortitude and perseverance find their mark.

Abandoned by the Elders of the local Methodist Church to the life of a field slave, Nathaniel did not overly despair. God was still with him and continued to bless him and increase in him both faith and reason, bestowing upon him scientific knowledge and religious insight. "While employed," Turner told Gray in the "1831 Confessions," "I was reflecting on many things that would present themselves to my imagination, and whenever an opportunity occurred of looking at a book when the school children were getting their lessons, I would find many things that the fertility of my own imagination had depicted to me before."

Most likely, Benjamin Turner, and later Samuel, possessed family libraries to which Nathaniel and John Clark had access. The young Nathaniel was becoming ever more self-conscious of his own spiritual gifts.

To stave off his own frustrations, having been removed away from central stage, Nathaniel disciplined both his mind and heart. For God had marked him on his head and breast. So he prayed and fasted when not engaged in his master’s service, but he also made practical use of his intellect. Nathaniel experimented "in casting different things in moulds made of earth." In these experiments, we find, possibly, a mirror to his soul’s turmoil. If his "casting" involved metal rather than, say, clay, then the experiments become clear.

The combined experiments, including the making of paper and gunpowder, suggest Turner attempted to make a shotgun. This particular intellectual play or desired production, seemingly, symbolized Nathaniel’s natural anger and his urge to strike out. At this stage of his development, his religion, conservative and sincere, however, counseled obedient perseverance.

Nathaniel Turner was keenly aware directly of how the religious world of the departed Benjamin Turner was slipping away. From 1810-1822, the liberal leanings of Methodism gradually faded. Possibly affected by the Prosser conspiracy, the Baptists and Methodists, between 1808 and 1812, began to reverse their policies on Christianizing slaves. Though Prosser did not use religion himself, there were slave preachers among his conspirators who used the Moses story to motivate his listeners to join Gabriel.

One aged Richmond preacher defended his ministry, thus: "I never preached any doctrine but that they should serve God and their masters faithfully. But, as for others who preached, I know they did not advise the same thing" (Gabriel’s Rebellion, pp. 53-54). The older Methodist sympathy for persecuted Christian slaves declined; competition came from only scattered pockets of Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Quakers. By 1820, "Methodism moved from a persecuted, radical sect to dominant church." (The Garden of American Methodism, pp. 167-168).

With an economic downturn, Virginia slavery became more vicious. In 1818, with the corn prices declining and the soil ruined by tobacco and poor soil management, more and more slaveowners began to see their slaves as "black gold," that which could be traded in a financial crisis, without consideration of family life or attachments. With President Jefferson’s purchase of the Louisiana Territory and the subsequent expansion of cotton production, the Lower South became a market for slaves, especially since there was no international source for African slaves, the external slave trade having been banned constitutionally in 1808.

W.E.B Du Bois, however, in his The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896), established definitively that the African trade continued up to and beyond the Civil War. But its flow was not adequate to feed the hunger of Deep South slavery. This new internal trade in Christian slaves was an innovation, for Virginians tended to free their excess slaves or provide them an opportunity to obtain their freedom.

During the thirty years before the Civil War, however, Virginia bred slaves like crops, "improving the line." The market became extremely lucrative. The price of slaves tripled, from about $400 in 1830 to $1200 in 1860. The Old Dominion became the greatest exporter of slaves from the Upper South, about 300,000, an average of about 10,000 a year (The Negro in Virginia, p. 180). Being "sold down the river" (an expression of Virginia origin) was an ominous shadow over the head of every Virginia black.

According to M.I. Finley of the University of Cambridge, "any given slave had a virtual 50% ‘chance of being sold at least once in the course of a 35-year lifetime’ and on average ‘would witness 11.4 sales of members of his family of origin and of his own immediate family’ . . . . ‘the threat of sale was sufficiently large to affect the life of every slave" (Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, pp. 76-77). What awaited them was not a better life, but the sweaty drudgery of the rice fields of South Carolina, the mosquito-infested turpentine swamps of Georgia, or the semi-tropic sugarcane bayous of Louisiana.

Sources Consulted

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1892. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Finley, Moses I. Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology.  London: Chatto & Windus, 1980.

Francis, Gilbert, and Katherine Futrell. Nat Turner Insurrection—1831. Southampton County Historical Society Living Library, 4 tapes.

Johnson, F. Roy. The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection. Murfreesboro, N.C.: Johnson Publishing Company, 1966.

Maxwell, John Francis. "The Development of Catholic Doctrine Concerning Slavery" (Part I). World Justice, XI (December 1969), pp. 147-192.

Williams, William Henry. The Garden of American Methodism: The Delmarva Peninsula, 1769-1820. Wilmington, Delaware: Scholarly Resources, Inc., 1984.

Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Virginia, compilers. The Negro in Virginia. Winston-Salem, North Carolina: John F. Blair, Publisher, 1994.

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Nathaniel Turner: 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

Chapter 7 Methodist Elders Interview Miracle Child  / Chapter 9 Methodist Promise of Freedom

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The Negro in Virginia

By Virginia Writers' Project

The Negro in Virginia examines the life of Afro-Americans in historic Virginia. As a part of the Virginia Writers' Project of the WPA. This compilation of works provides a comprehensive look at the lives of Virginians from slavery to the Great Depression. Only The Negro in Virginia, a product of that state's black unit directed by Roscoe E. Lewis and one of the outstanding achievements of the Writers' Project, attained publication.

Roscoe Lewis evinced a keen interest in the tales of former slaves, both in this and in his later research activities. His efforts to obtain slave narratives continued after the Writers' Project was terminated. At the time of his death in 1961 he had begun a systematic analysis of the more than two hundred life histories he had collected.

On 8 November 1936, an all-black unit of the Virginia Writers' Project under the direction of Roscoe E. Lewis was formed. The objectives of the Virginia Negro Studies project, based at Hampton Institute and consisting of 16 workers, were to provide employment for educated African Americans on relief and to collect and publish material on African-American life in Virginia from Jamestown to the present. Lewis, a chemistry and later social sciences professor at Hampton Institute, had been interested in African-American oral history for some time and was an excellent choice for project director. During the next year more than 300 ex-slaves were interviewed. The interviews plus research in libraries and courthouses resulted in the publication of The Negro in Virginia in 1940. About half of the interviews have been lost. The rest are located at various repositories throughout Virginia. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-slaves, first published in 1976 by the University Press of Virginia, represents an attempt to assemble all extant Virginia ex-slave narratives. Altogether 20 percent of the personnel of the Virginia Writers' Project was black.—LVA

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 28 June 2008

 

 

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