RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – The first thing white people did after Nat Turner’s violent slave insurrection in 1831 was round up more than 120 black people and kill them.
But the next thing white people did was surprising.
Hundreds of them sent petitions to the Virginia General Assembly calling for an end to slavery.
Richmond’s newspapers argued fiercely in favor of abolition. President Thomas Jefferson’s grandson pushed a plan to free slaves and help them settle in the new African nation of Liberia. Even a leader of the militia that put down Turner’s rebellion called for a gradual end to slavery.
In other words, the insurrection almost worked. More than 50 white men, women and children had died in the bloodiest slave revolt on U.S. soil. It forced Virginians to confront the evil that was at the root of their society, and it just plain scared a lot of people. Thanks to public pressure, the General Assembly considered taking radical action.
But the votes fell short. Instead, lawmakers passed harsher laws that made African Americans’ lives even worse. They also aggravated divisions that erupted, 30 years later, in the Civil War.
“It’s, like, one of the saddest moments in American history,” historian Erik S. Root said, “because of the missed opportunity.”
This year, Virginia marks the origins of slavery in the English colonies. The first captured Africans arrived at Virginia’s Point Comfort in August 1619. The debates prompted by Turner’s insurrection were “the most public, focused, and sustained discussion of slavery and emancipation that ever occurred in … any … southern state,” historian Eva Sheppard Wolf wrote.
The process laid bare how deeply conflicted white Southerners were about the topic. There were slave owners who favored abolition and abolitionists who just…