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That Nancy, Nathaniel Turner's unquestioned African mother, was raped during the middle passage

before she was sold to Ben Turner is a possibility. But then there would not have been a need for the tale

of Nancy’s Nile Valley origins to account for Nathaniel's complexion. Moreover, Gilbert Francis

reckons Nancy's conception immediately after reaching the shores of Virginia.



Section 1, Chapter 4


Nathaniel Turner 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis

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The Social World of Cross Keys

 Rape, Adultery & Other Perversities

Folklorist Gilbert Francis & the Parents of Nathaniel Turner


Behold, I am against thee, saith the Lord of hosts; and I will discover thy skirts upon thy face, and I will shew the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdom thy shame. Nahum 3.5


Nathaniel Turner’s brief life of thirty-one years occurred during what is commonly called the "National Period." He was born October 2, 1800, in Southampton County, Virginia, five days before Governor James Monroe ordered Gabriel Prosser’s execution. A lunar eclipse occurred on the day of his birth. It was a time of great changes and great contradictions. Eight years before the official end of the U.S. African slave trade, Nathaniel came screaming into the world, a first generation American, his mother having been kidnapped in some unknown African village.

That same year, 1800, the United States (eleven years old) elected as its third president Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence and an apologist for slaveholding ("Administration of Justice," pp. 133-139). Southampton records, however, do not make apparent the personal intimacy under which Turner’s parents conceived their son. Nor does the folklore surrounding his birth adequately respond to troubling questions, such as the identity and status of the father.

As in the lives of other legendary men, the fine details of Turner‘s birth were made a mystery to veil, I suspect, individuals in high places. Critical scholarship, nevertheless, still requires us to cut away the dross and extrapolate that which we know and find reasonable within the inhuman context of American slavery. According to oral reports, Turner’s mother was transported to Jamestown from Africa and sold on the auction block in Suffolk, Virginia. The agreed impression is that this African female was in her mid or late teens.

Then in his mid-30s, Benjamin Turner of Cross Keys (Southampton County), according to Gilbert Francis, bought Turner’s mother "some time between January and March of 1800." If this timeline is indeed accurate or near true, this African female became impregnated as soon as she was purchased by Benjamin Turner. Married with two children and possibly a wife with child, Ben Turner gave his new female slave the name "Nancy," which was also the name of his teenage daughter.

Francis’ timeline, however, generates questions concerning the "who" of Turner’s parents. In short, we are uncertain who was Nathaniel Turner’s father (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, tape 1). But clues exist that run counter to the standard view.

Most often it is claimed, including by Turner himself, that his "father" was a slave. The time of his birth and his complexion suggest that his "slave father" was not his biological one. According to the Governor of Virginia’s 1831 Proclamation, Nat Turner was of a "rather bright complexion." The Governor’s description also concluded that Turner was "not a mulatto." Of course, the Governor did not know the truth of Turner’s parents. In use of the phrase exactingly "not a mulatto" the Governor's words could have only meant Turner could not be mistaken for a white man because of nose, hair, or other physical features.

For Turner had a "large flat nose" (Tragle, p. 421) and other Negro features. Some have felt a need to account for Turner’s complexion. According to Gilbert Francis, a local folklorist, Turner’s mother was from the Nile Valley and was of an "olive color." Of course, there are no records to sustain Francis’ tale of Nancy’s Nile Valley origins.

Francis’ account for Turner’s "bright complexion" runs counter to the norm of the African trade and that of human behavior. His tale suggests Nathaniel inherited his complexion from his mother rather than his father. That a slave was exported from East Africa to Virginia seems highly unlikely. Moreover, even if Nancy of the Nile Valley was of an "olive complexion," that hue is usually considered darker than a "bright complexion."

This account of the geographical origins of Turner’s mother leaves us in doubt of the full veracity of Francis’ tale and causes us to suspect that this story was manufactured by Nathaniel's white family and sustained by their co-religionists to mask sexual impropriety, namely, a slave master’s rape of his female slave.

Francis’ account of Turner’s early years also included the story that Nancy tried to kill her baby because "she did not want her baby to grow up in slavery" (Nat Turner Insurrection—1831, tape 1). But such radical "abolitionist sentiment," such "savage nobility," seems contrived, especially coming from a newly arrived African, whose culture sanctioned slavery (Lovejoy, p. 14).

Though it makes good melodrama, Nancy’s supposed natural repugnance to slavery, extraordinary in any setting, goes unaccounted and unsubstantiated. It is thread-bare fabrication. This tale of attempted infanticide is of the same material as the one of the Nile Valley origins to account for Turner’s complexion..

Both tales (fabrications) are incredible. The attempted "child murder" probably did occur, but not as a result of the reasons Francis and others have given. Francis is too Christian, too much of a Southern traditionalist, and upright to provide the more saucy aspects of Virginia slavery in the Jefferson tradition. This tale of Nancy’s "natural repugnance" to slavery seems designed to divert culpability away from Benjamin Turner her master and possible rapist. 

That a young terrified African girl would make a free sexual alliance with an American slave immediately on stepping off a slave ship seems too incredulous, doubtful and baffling, a play on the racial stereotype of the looseness of African sexual morality. And the lust of black American Christian male slaves.

That Nancy, Nathaniel Turner's unquestioned African mother, was raped during the middle passage before she was sold to Ben Turner is a possibility. But then there would not have been a need for the tale of Nancy’s Nile Valley origins to account for Nathaniel's complexion. Moreover, Gilbert Francis descendant of a Cross Keys slaveholder, reckons her conception immediately after reaching the shores of Virginia.

That the young slaveholding Benjamin Turner fathered Nancy’s son seems most likely. This actuality would then explain not only the emphasis on the young African girl’s color as "olive," but also her threat on her child’s life. At the sight of her newborn, Nancy was shocked by her son’s complexion, which marked her shame and the man who ravished her. Benjamin Turner saved the baby’s life, according to Francis, and placed the child in the hands of Harriet and Tom, the surrogate grandparents on the Turner estate, to be raised (The Southampton Insurrection—1831, tape 1).

In that he was raised by his "grandparents," Turner, most likely, was speaking of Harriet and Tom when he spoke of his "mother" and "father" or his "parents." Seemingly, he recognized them as both parents and grandparents at different stages or in particular contexts of his life. This fusion of grandparents and parents in conversation still exists in many African-American families.

Judging by their status, Harriet and Tom must have been part of Ben Turner’s inheritance when he came of age. That is, Harriet and Tom had been owned by his father and were probably about Ben Turner’s thirty-four years or older. Tom, the so-called grandfather, may have also been the nameless father who ran away. 

His family having prospered during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), Ben Turner was, thus, at least, a second-generation slaveowner. We have no evidence, however, that Ben Turner bought slaves other than the young African girl whom he renamed Nancy. If Gilbert Francis is correct about Ben Turner’s religiosity, this instance of slave buying may have occurred on impulse, rather than for economic reasons.

Though they lacked full command over their son, Nathaniel’s grandparents (probably in concert with their master, Ben Turner) named him "Nathaniel," which in Hebrew means "gift of God." His parents (grandparents) raised Nathaniel partially within the Cross Keys household of Ben Turner. This community of thickly situated farms, amidst great swamps, was within twenty miles of towns with Hebraic names; to the northeast, Bethlehem, and to the east, Jerusalem.

Even the name of Turner’s village seemed to possess the air of religious and Christian significance: the image of crossed keys called to mind the legend of Peter as gatekeeper holding the keys to heaven and hell (Matthew 16.18-19). During his life, Nathaniel Turner, it seems, confined himself to the world of Cross Keys and Jerusalem. Though there are stories of his having traveled outside of Southampton, his primary concern and interest was restricted to Cross Keys and Ben Turner’s Methodist society.

Sources Consulted

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

Jefferson, Thomas. "Administration of Justice." In Notes on the State of Virginia. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964.

Lovejoy, Paul E. "The African Diaspora: Revisionist Interpretations of Ethnicity, Culture and Religion under Slavery." Studies in the World History of Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, II, 1 (1997).

Tragle, Henry Irving. The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831: A Compilation of Source Material. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1971.

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Nathaniel Turner: 

Christian Martyrdom in Southampton 

A Theology of Black Liberation

By Rudolph Lewis


  Chapter 3 The Confessions and Folklore / Chapter 5 The Bible and Biblical Typology

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The Southampton Slave Revolt of 1831

A Compilation of Source Material

By Henry Irving Tragle

This case book on the most significant slave revolt in American history adds an important dimension to the study of slavery in the United States. Tragle has not only collected all the extant primary documents (the trial record, newspaper accounts, letters, diaries and other contemporary sources, most of which are published here for the first time), he made several trips to Southampton County to retrace the steps of the rebels and to interview the present inhabitants, both black and white, on the local traditions surrounding Nat Turner.—University of Massachusetts Press

The most important single work ever published on the Turner rebellion. Tragle's research is an example of historical detective work at its best.—Eric Foner, New York Review of Books

Tragle's methods are as important as what he has found. So much can be done, he reminds us, with such non-narrative sources as tax records and manuscript census returns, or by means of a patient reworking of familiar soil.—Gerald W. Mullin, The Journal of American History. 489 pages.

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

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This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

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Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Ancient African Nations

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update 28 February 2012




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