Black History Month: Nat Turner & Mary E. Bowser

Nat Turner - Black History Month

Last week, our blog honored Richmond’s own Maggie L. Walker. We continue to celebrate Black History Month this week with profiles of two Black Virginians who made significant impacts in the struggle for emancipation, albeit in very different ways.


Nat Turner was born into slavery in 1800 on a plantation in Southampton County. The plantation owner, Benjamin Turner, allowed him to be instructed in reading, writing, and religion as a child. Turner became extremely religious. He spent much of his time reading the Bible, fasting, and praying. His mother believed he was born for some greater purpose.

In 1828, Turner had a vision of the Holy Spirit in which he believed was instructing him to fight against Satan. He took this to mean that he should fight against the slave owners who oppressed his people. In 1831, he began planning a rebellion among the slaves in the local area. By August of 1831 he had gathered around 70 slaves and free blacks who participated in the rebellion, which began on August 22. The rebels went from house to house in the local neighborhoods, freeing all slaves and killing almost all white people they encountered. All told, they killed around 60 white people before the rebellion was subdued two days later.

The backlash to the rebellion was swift and violent. In the aftermath, nearly 200 slaves and free black people were killed by a combination of the state, militias, and mobs. The rebellion also led to harsh new laws restricting the education of black people, their right to assembly, and other freedoms.

While many of the rebels were killed immediately, Nat Turner survived for two months in hiding. He was captured on October 30, 1831 and executed just 12 days later.


Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia in 1839, but was freed four years later by her former master’s widow, Elizabeth Van Lew, who was an abolitionist and Quaker. Mary Elizabeth was educated at the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia and then returned to Richmond to marry Wilson Bowser. The couple were married in April of 1861, just days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter that marked the beginning of the Civil War.

During the war, Elizabeth Van Lew was involved in spying for the Union, and it was through her that Mary Bowser was introduced as a spy into the Davis household at the Confederate White House. Bowser was highly intelligent and possessed a photographic memory, making her an ideal spy. She posed as a servant in the household and provided a large amount of intelligence to Union forces until January of 1865, when she fled due to suspicion from Jefferson Davis. Although unsuccessful, she left with a final act of defiance: an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House.

The full extent and nature of the information Bowser provided to the Union is not known today, although it is believed that some of her intelligence was of paramount strategic value to General Ulysses S. Grant. The U.S. government destroyed most records of espionage during the Civil War to protect those involved. Nothing is known of Bowser’s life after the end of the war, and there is no record of the date of her death.

Stay tuned for more Black history next week! Don’t forget to like and share!



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