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.
The statue itself, scheduled to be erected on Brown’s Island by 2019, will consist of two bronze figures, one male and one female, representing anonymous slaves freed from bondage. The base will feature the names and faces of 10 historical figures who advanced the cause of freedom, separated into pre-emancipation and post-emancipation eras.
The state’s planning for the emancipation monument is unfolding separately from the city of Richmond’s efforts to re-examine Confederate statues on Monument Avenue, but the MLK commission is working closely with the city to secure legal rights to put the statue on Brown’s Island.
The city has leased the island to the downtown advocacy group Venture Richmond, which has already placed a sculpture at the site of the planned emancipation statue. Venture Richmond has asked the commission to pay up to $80,000 to cover the costs of moving the existing geometric sculpture to a new location. The project’s total estimated budget is $800,000, which is expected to be paid for by a mix of public and private funds. The General Assembly has set aside $500,000 for the monument.
In addition to Gabriel and Turner, the other pre-emancipation honorees chosen Wednesday are Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a pro-Union spy who passed secrets from inside the Confederate White House; Dred Scott, a Virginia-born slave who sued for his freedom and sparked the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision that found African-Americans were not citizens in the eyes of the law; and William Harvey Carney, a Norfolk native who was purchased out of slavery and fought in the first black military unit organized in the North.
The five post-emancipation honorees are John Mercer Langston, a Louisa County native who was the country’s first African-American elected official; the Rev. Wyatt Tee Walker, a Petersburg civil rights activist who served as chief of staff to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Lucy F. Simms, a former slave who went on to become a pioneering black educator in the Shenandoah Valley; Rosa Dixon Bowser, an advocate for black women, children and teachers who founded the Richmond Woman’s League; and John Mitchell Jr.; a crusading newspaper editor who fought racial injustice through the pages of the Richmond Planet.
The commission originally planned to honor four people from each era, but recently widened the plan to five. Depending on the extra costs for adding more people, the total list of honorees could be cut back to the original eight instead of 10.
Turner and Mitchell were identified as the two people who would be dropped in the unlikely event the project is scaled back.
When the commission asked for public input, Turner was the only nominee who drew negative feedback, and the opposition seemed to hold sway with some lawmakers.
“It was significant to me that there were those who spoke against, so there was contention among the public as far as whether or not he should be there,” said Sen. Rosalyn R. Dance, D-Petersburg. “There was none in regards to Gabriel.”
Sen. Mamie E. Locke, D-Hampton, said the hostility toward Turner could be explained by the fact that his rebellion was successful and Gabriel’s was not.
“My support for him is based upon the fact that this is an individual who carried out his opposition to the institution of slavery,” Locke said. “People were talking about how happy folks were on these plantations; there was no resistance to the institution. And he begged to differ.”