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03.01.10 Johnson, F. Roy, The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, published in 1954 by Johnson Publishing Co.

Notes Concerning the Author:

Help is needed in finding a biography of F. Roy Johnson.  Johnson apparently self-published this book.  He lived at Murfreesboro, North Carolina, not far from the sight of the terrorist attack by Nat Turner’s gang across the State line in Southampton County, Virginia.


F. Roy Johnson’s book of 248 pages is a comprehensive study of the bloody terrorist attack by a gang of African American slaves that was organized by and led by a fellow slave named Nat Turner.  With no logical hope of gaining any benefit to themselves or their families, Turner’s gang set out on a night of murdering 58 innocent white people, mostly women and children, on September 22, 1831, in Southampton County, Virginia, an eastern county bordering on North Carolina, a region long-settled, with long-established farms, where the work load of typical slaves was generally moderate and life for them was as good or better than slaves living in any other region of the country.  In his book, The Nat Turner Slave Insurrection, historian F. Roy Johnson presents a comprehensive account of this event, its leader, the victims, the counterattack by white militia, the trials and executions, and the subsequent modifications in southern States of laws and rules for managing bonded African Americans and their freedoms to move about, to learn to read, and to socialize among themselves.  Nat Turner may have mystically fanaticized that his gang’s attack would somehow force white people to give bonded African Americans greater freedoms, perhaps even emancipation.  But the result of his gang’s bloody work produced the opposite result.  Freedom to move about, socialize, gather at churches, enjoy the benefits of trusting relationships, or to read and write would never be as generous after 1831.  It would be after 360,000 Federals died in the bloody conquest of the Confederate States of America, 34 years later in 1865, that bonded African Americans would be free to move about, socialize, gather at churches and read and write, plus to be independent and responsible for their own welfare and that of their children and their aging parents.  This is the meaning and importance of the Nat Turner “slave insurrection.”  Now back to the book.

Nat Turner was born on October 2, 1800 on Benjamin Turner’s farm of over 600 acres, worked by 25 to 30 fellow Negro slaves.  His mother had been born in Africa and was said to be “high spirited.”  His father, whose ancestry was a mix of African and white blood, ran away and abandoned his family when Nat (of light complexion but not a mulatto) was still young, “never to be heard from afterwards.”  Perhaps a rebellious nature was in Nat’s blood.  But Nat grew up on the Turner farm and played with both white and Negro children during his youth.  Church was an important part of social life and “Nat was said to have learned much in the Sunday Schools where the spelling book and the reader were used for instruction of the children and the Bible, for older Negroes.”  Furthermore, Nat and Benjamin Turner’s second son, John Clark Turner were of similar age, played together, and it appears that John Clark gave Nat instruction in reading and writing.

Benjamin Turner sold Nat, 22, to Thomas Moore a neighbor whose farm was only, 3 miles distant.  Being in the same county, Nat remained able to visit family.

By the time he was 28 years old Nat was recognized among Negroes as a preacher.  Of this Johnson writes on page 62:

“As a preacher and leader among the blacks, Nat obtained more freedom of movement than that permitted the ordinary slave.  He could travel about Southampton County and into neighboring counties on weekends and to more distant places during the holiday seasons.  It was reported he travelled as far afield as Richmond.”

Then on February 12, 1831 Nat observed an eclipse of the sun which, was taken by him “to be the sign from the Holy Spirit that he should ‘arise and prepare myself,’ and having so done, ‘slay my enemies,’ the white overloads, ‘with their own weapons’.”  Nat was to build a gang to ‘slay my enemies’ under his leadership and four recruited “lieutenants,” Hark, who also worked on the Travis farm, and Sam, Henry and Nelson, who worked elsewhere.  Each of these five, “in his particular way, wielded certain degrees of influence over his fellow blacks.”  Nat and his gang of five, sworn to secrecy, waited for another sign from the heavens.

The sign came on August 13 1831: “the sun rose with ‘a pale, greenish tint, which soon gave place to cerulean blue and this also a silvery white’.”  Newspaper reports of the event indicate that the sight was seen by many people and generally judged to be quite strange.  That was all the sign that Nat Turner needed!  He readily persuaded his fellow gang members, Hark, Sam, Henry and Nelson, that the event that morning was a directive from God to launch the terrorist attack.  Alleging that the sign from the heavens was a directive to kill white people, Nat and the other men agreed to launch the attack after dark the night of August 21.

About 10 o’clock the gang set out on its mission of murder.  The number grew from a starting count of 6 as the killings began.  Along the way some negroes were persuaded to join the gang and participate in the slaughter.  Others had enough common sense to stay clear of it.  Some sounded the alarm to warn whites elsewhere.  Nat was the leader, the “General,” not a slayer himself; he stayed behind the killers and, except for one instance, “never arrived at the scene of slaughter until the murders had been committed. . . .  He ‘viewed the mangled bodies as they lay, in silent satisfaction, and immediately started in quest of other victims’.”   By the end of the rampage, 36 hours since the beginning, the gang had grown to “a force of ‘fifty or sixty,’ all mounted and armed with guns, axes, swords and clubs.”  Finally, militia put a stop to it.  Fifty-eight whites, mostly women and children, lay dead.  Many terrorists were killed, others were captured and held for trial.

By October 31, the day of Nat Turner’s trial, “except for trial of 4 free Negroes in the May 1832 Superior Court, action against the insurgents had been completed.”  Of the trials of captured terrorists, we learn that “53 Negroes had been arraigned, and of these 17 were executed and 12 transported.  Billy Artis, a free Negro, had committed suicide before he could be taken up, and Berry Newman, a second free Negro, was to be hanged May 11, 1832.  Nat went to the gallows on November 11. . . .  All of Nat’s followers were given a decent burial, but . . . his body was turned over to the surgeons for dissection.”

Availability of this Book

You can get a used copy of F. Roy Johnson’s book by going to and to other places.  There is no Kindle book and as of now no Google scanned book.  The better copies of the book look to be very expensive.  Consider getting a copy from interlibrary loan and making a copy on your copy machine.  You can do that for personal use, not for resale.  This reference work ought to be made available as a scanned digital book.  Let us hope.