Black Women and the Southampton Rebellion

African-American women weaving rug in home economics class at Hampton Institute, Hampton, Va. circa 1899 (Library of Congress)

In 2003, Kenneth Greenberg edited a collection of essays on the Southampton County, Virginia, slave revolt commonly known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Relatively little had been written in the preceding decades about Turner or the uprising he led, and the volume’s contributors seized the opportunity to reconsider everything from the revolt’s place in a broader Atlantic context to the fictionalized representations of the event. Literary scholar Mary Kemp Davis, however, used her chapter to explore a question other authors largely overlooked: “Where were,” she wondered, the enslaved women of Southampton “on 22-23 August, 1831?” Put slightly differently, what role did women—who constituted forty-six percent of the county’s enslaved population—play in facilitating, forestalling, or enduring the melee Turner inaugurated? Reviewing the available evidence, Davis concluded that the “intractable spirit of resistance” that pervaded the men enslaved in Southampton “was doubtless alive in many female slaves whom no one saw.” Nevertheless, she termed this aspect of the revolt an “enduring mystery,” one that “invites and resists new interpretations at every turn.”Vanessa Holden’s Surviving Southampton: African American Women and Resistance in Nat Turner’s Community offers insight into the mystery of Black women’s involvement in this cataclysmic event.  

Holden’s insistence on reframing the rebellion is evident from the beginning in her conscious renaming of the event in question as the Southhampton Rebellion. Where many previous studies—including, most recently, Christopher Tomlin’s In the Matter of Nat Turner: A Speculative History—emphasize Turner’s mindset and strategy, Holden—associate professor of History and African American and Africana studies at the University of Kentucky—is far more concerned with the revolt’s reverberations through the enslaved community as a whole. “The Southampton Rebellion,” she argues, “was far bigger than one man’s inspired bid for freedom” (7). And any understanding of the rebellion’s full scope, Holden insists, must account for the enslaved and free Black women of Southampton County and the ways in which their unique places in enslaving households and workforces fostered, sustained, and permitted them to survive it. Holden thus joins an array of scholars who, in contexts spanning the plantation complexes of the Americas, have demonstrated that slave rebellions were not simply masculine affairs, but broader spasms with roots that spread throughout the entire enslaved community. As full members of that community, women cultivated the seeds of rebellion. Never a monolithic bloc, they played ambivalent roles in its unfolding, helping in some cases to reap the bloody harvest and in others positioning themselves to weather the impending backlash. Southampton County’s enslaved and free Black women, in short, permeated the rebellion, and, in the myriad—and sometimes conflicting—roles they played, underscored the complex pressures under which enslaved people strove to ensure the persistence of their families and communities.

After more than a century and a half of relative academic—if not popular—neglect, the Southampton uprising has been the subject of at least three monographs in the last seven years, with a fourth by the late Anthony Kaye in progress at the time of his passing. Studies by David Allmendinger, Patrick Breen, and Christopher Tomlins have greatly enriched our knowledge not only of the spiritual and political context that produced Nat Turner, but of the men who joined him, the route they followed on their bloody quest, and the reprisals the white community enacted in the wake of the rebellion. Women and children, however, are frequently—sometimes strikingly—absent from the events depicted in these reconstructions of the revolt. In several studies, they appear scarcely at all, and where they do, they are supporting characters, reactive rather than active agents in the unfolding conflict. 

Holden aims to rectify this absence by grounding the patterns of resistance that produced the Southampton Rebellion in the county’s women and the wider Black community that they represented. In doing so she extends a growing body of work exploring women’s close combat with enslavers, in this case, covering the bloodiest slave insurrection in US history. In thinking about enslaved women’s use of liminal spaces and their navigation of the household and the fields, for example, Surviving Southampton is deeply reminiscent of Stephanie Camp’s Closer to Freedom. Holden, however, follows scholars like Aisha Finch in allocating women a prime place not only in everyday resistance, but in organized, even violent contestations of bondage. Her consideration of the fraught space of the household also echoes Thavolia Glymph’s work on the constant struggle between enslaved women and their enslavers. While Holden focuses less than Glymph on the specifically gendered nature of this strife, she emphasizes that women’s mobility (especially on the smaller holdings that typified Southampton) made them central to any form of resistance up to and including armed insurrection. 

Because women appear only fleetingly in the documentary record of the revolt—and most often did so at the insistence of white authorities—Surviving Southampton necessarily follows Marisa Fuentes’ call to read archival sources “along the bias grain.” Doing so produces many of the book’s most intriguing moments as Holden unpacks the ways that enslaved and free Black women navigated the trials that followed the failed revolt. Reading women’s testimony, Holden explores both what women hauled before the authorities chose to reveal and, just as importantly, what they might have chosen to obscure. Archival silence was, in short, a two-way street. It did not merely reflect enslavers’ hegemonic power; rather, at strategic moments, the subjects of interrogations deployed silence for protection. “Some silence in the extant archive,” Holden suggests, “signifies intent, agency, and strategy” (84). Whether or not this is entirely a new finding, Surviving Southampton nevertheless interweaves the question of archival silences with several of the most important historiographical trends in the study of enslaved life—and, particularly, in that of enslaved women—and, in doing so, makes well-trodden historical terrain appear more strange and fresh .

Theoretically rich as they might be, these silences (archival or otherwise) mean that Surviving Southampton’s specific claims necessarily remain somewhat speculative. Holden relies primarily on published versions of the records produced during the prosecution and defense of those allegedly involved in the rebellion, supplemented by interviews of individuals formerly enslaved in Virginia and contextualized by local courts’ “Free Negro and Slave” records. Though several women testified regarding the uprising, for the most part their own choices and actions remain tantalizingly obscure. The officials recording their words were generally more concerned with the actions of the men whom they considered the primary movers of the insurrection. Women’s actions and motivations received considerably less attention and thus left a lighter archival footprint. Through these narrow windows, Holden sees women in an array of deeply plausible roles: offering communications, logistical support, and, occasionally, the strength of their arms to the rebellion. As is true of so much regarding the history of enslaved women, however—and, indeed, of the insurrection itself—even these plausible inferences must remain just that. 

At 125 pages of text, Surviving Southampton is a slim volume, and, as is inevitable in a study merging two topics as rich as enslaved women’s lived experiences and the United States’ most influential slave uprising, it occasionally leaves the reader desiring more. Holden emphasizes the “survival praxis” of Southampton’s Black community, teasing instances separated by nearly two hundred years of Black women urging their kin to give what a current resident called “that Turner mess” a wide berth (120). It would be fascinating to see more on resistance to the rebellion itself. How did women weigh resistance and survival in the split seconds in which they chose whether to aid and abet the rising or to let it pass them by? Additionally, while Holden provides a striking treatment of free Black Southamptonians’ experiences after the revolt, further discussion of the county’s enslaved community after the rebellion would be welcome. How did its residents adapt their survival strategies and reconstruct their communities in its wake? How quickly did things go back to “normal” (if the ongoing struggle between enslaver and enslaved could ever be characterized as such)? How did the relative geographies of slaveholders and bondspeople shift following the insurrection? We know, for example, that surveillance in religious spaces increased considerably, and that free Black Virginians faced increasing hostility. What other changes took place? If survival was the core reality of Black residents’ experience (and it seems certain that it was), how, precisely did they pursue this end?

Much has changed in the nearly twenty years since Mary Kemp Davis pondered the relative absence of enslaved and free women of color in the Southampton Rebellion—not least in the scholarship regarding those same women. Bringing together insights mined from some of the richest veins in the field of slavery studies, Vanessa Holden has offered a number of answers and an innovative reading of the available archives. The silences—intentional and unintentional—in the archive surrounding the uprising continue to obscure much about this moment. But Surviving Southampton insists that women’s voices be heard, heeded, and remembered in understanding and commemorating the Southampton Rebellion  and provides a model for revisiting slave revolts and other moments of rupture.

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Robert Colby

Robert Colby is a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at Christopher Newport University. His research on slave commerce, emancipation, and the Civil War has won multiple awards, including the Society of American Historians’ Allan Nevins Prize, the Society of Civil War Historians’ Anne J. Bailey Prize, and Anthony Kaye Memorial Essay Award.

Comments on “Black Women and the Southampton Rebellion

  • I appreciate this thoughtful review. I just finished Vanessa Holden’s book, and regard it as one of the best new books on American history that I’ve read in recent years. I look forward to assigning it! I anticipate my students will love it.
    Mark Higbee, Eastern Michigan University

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