On Geographic Memory: The Political Mappings of Nat Turner’s Slave Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia

Authors: Vanessa Lovelace*, Brandeis University
Topics: Political Geography, Ethnicity and Race, Cultural Geography
Keywords: Memory, Black Geography, Slavery, Landscape
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/12/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM
Room: Napoleon C3, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


On the night of August 21st, 1831, a group of free and enslaved Black men took up arms against the institution of slavery. In this process, they proceeded to kill between 50-60 white men, women and children. The facts and specificities of this rebellion are increasingly discussed and debated, creating a fractured narrative. The landscape of Southampton County, VA, where the rebellion took place, is simultaneously much changed and a conserver of the past. Just past the intersection of Meherrin and Cross Keys Road in Southampton, stands Historical Marker U-122, which memorializes the rebellion. The marker is one of four geographical reminders of the rebellion, placing its start some seven miles to the West. Nat Turner’s rebellion ended in a bloody suppression where the rebels were killed, captured and/or decapitated. The second marker, Blackhead Signpost Road, receives its name from the display of those dismembered bodies on pikes to mark the road and the wrong, but the road’s name is never linked to its dehumanizing past. This paper focuses on the contemporary landscape of Southampton County as a site of memory, which establishes a quieted, and “patriotic” reminder of what happens to those who choose violence to challenge systems of oppression. As a geographical site, the marker, maps the transgressions of rebellious slaves at the same time that it seeks to distance itself from the institution of slavery. Drawing upon the work of Katherine McKittrick, this paper critiques the state’s ability to easily turn geographies of violence into violent geographies.

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