Nat Turner Trail Hits Roadblock

Published 11:08 am Friday, March 4, 2011


RICHMOND – The Southampton County Historical Society struck out in its quest for matching funds from the state to create a driving tour about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.

Sen. Fred Quayle, R-Suffolk, and Delegate William Barlow, D-Smithfield, unsuccessfully requested amendments to the state budget to include the matching funds.

Quayle’s request would have granted the the Historical Society the entire $105,000 it needs to qualify for a federal grant of $420,000. The money would be used to create a walking and driving tour for the “Nat Turner Rebellion” path.

The money also would help complete the renovation of the Rebecca Vaughan House, where the last murders of the uprising took place.

“I have been able to get them a little bit of money in the past to advance some of the projects they’re working on,” Quayle said about the Historical Society. “They asked me this year to put in this budget request.”

Barlow’s request would have provided $50,000 from the state budget for the same purpose. However, he doubted from the start that it would be included in the budget approved by the General Assembly last week.

Barlow said he believed the amendment would fail because it was classified as an earmark, funds requested by a legislator for a pet project. Also, money is an issue for the state, especially with Gov. Bob McDonnell’s mission to keep spending in check.

“Items like that weren’t granted because, see, this is a private enterprise,” Barlow said. “They didn’t want to use taxpayer money for private projects.”

That was no surprise to the Historical Society. President Lynda Updike said she is well aware of all the budget problems and is surprised the request got as far as it did. She is sure the Historical Society eventually will get its funding.

“We’ve got some grants in the hopper that we are yet to hear from,” Updike said. “We are confident that we will get our local match through a grant.”

Proponents said the proposed Nat Turner Trail would not only preserve Virginia’s history but also increase tourism industry — a priority for McDonnell and the General Assembly. More tourism means more jobs and tax revenues.

“You seemingly can’t throw a rock here without hitting a beautiful vacation spot, a former president’s home or a Civil War battlefield,” McDonnell said in a 2009 press release. “We are surrounded by natural beauty, historical landmarks and tourist destinations that are the envy of other states.”

That history includes the bloody revolt that happened 180 years ago in southwestern Southampton County.

In August 1831, according to historical accounts, Turner believed he had been called by God to lead a rebellion against slave owners. More than 70 slaves joined Turner. Over two days, his Black Liberation Army killed at least 55 white people.

That started a vicious retaliation of whites killing hundreds of blacks during following weeks. Turner and his men were eventually executed.

One of the last stops for Turner’s army was the house of Rebecca Vaughan, a widow and mother of four adult children. The insurgents killed the family, along with Vaughan’s 18-year-old niece, who was in the house preparing for her wedding.

After the home fell into disrepair, the Southampton County Historical Society purchased the Rebecca Vaughan House in 2004 and moved it from a farm to the town of Courtland. The home is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Nat Turner Rebellion has been both reviled and celebrated. Some saw Turner as a crazed murderer who engineered the slaughter of innocent people. Others saw him as a courageous hero who gave his life in the cause of freedom.

While there may be mixed views about Turner, historians agree on the significance of the insurrection: It led to a further crackdown on slaves across the South, spurred the abolitionist movement and planted the seeds for the Civil War that started in 1861.

“As America prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we must not forget the significance of the Nat Turner Rebellion. The Nat Turner Historic Trail and his legacy are aspects of history that must be included in America’s upcoming 2011 Civil War memorial events,” wrote Kitty Pope, a publicist for the African Diaspora Tourism online magazine.