Wood engraving “Discovery of Nat Turner” depicts Benjamin Phipps’s October 30, 1831, capture of Turner, leader of the Southampton County slave insurrection.

Legacy of Fear

Wood engraving “Discovery of Nat Turner” depicts Benjamin Phipps’s October 30, 1831, capture of Turner, leader of the Southampton County slave insurrection.

Wood engraving “Discovery of Nat Turner” depicts Benjamin Phipps’s October 30, 1831, capture of Turner, leader of the Southampton County slave insurrection.

Just hours after I posted “The Legend of Jim Crow” last week, nine black people were shot to death at a prayer meeting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Jim Crow stereotype is a laughing, simple, guileless “darkie.” I said I’d write about the stereotype of Nat Turner this week.

Turner was a slave who in 1831 led a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia, where fifty-seven white men, women, and children were hacked and slashed to death with knives, hatchets, and farm tools. Turner himself carried a broadsword.

My goal was abstract: I wanted to note how a pall of fear hanging over former slave-holding Virginians would drive Jim Crow legislation enacted to segregate and hold in thrall former slaves. The laws were based on racial stereotypes.

Sadly, my goal isn’t abstract now.

The twenty-one-year-old white South Carolinian alleged to have committed the murders commented before he shot his victims, “You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

In his stereotype, Nat Turner is a savage, bloodthirsty predator bent on raping white women.

“What strikes us as the most remarkable thing in this matter is the horrible ferocity of these monsters,” wrote the Richmond Enquirer on August 30, 1831, a week after Turner’s insurrection was quelled. “Nothing is spared; neither age nor sex is respected—the helplessness of women and children pleads in vain for mercy.”

Along with the perpetrators, innocent slaves and freedmen were shot, hanged, or whipped in reprisal. Captured weeks later, an unrepentant Turner—who could recite pages of scripture from memory and claimed an angel had directed him to attack the people who enslaved him—was hanged, quartered, and flayed. His skin was reportedly fashioned into a satchel.

The Virginia general assembly passed laws forbidding African American congregations to meet without the supervision of a white pastor. It became unlawful to teach a slave to read or to give a slave a book, even the Bible.

The white response to the stereotype of Nat Turner is fear, cruelty, and hate.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone could feel the articulate, graceful, and loving families and friends who survive the Emanuel AME Church dead are less than human, unfit to mix with white society.

But groups in America still do, and seek to make sure others feel that way, too.

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