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Nat Turner urging the slaves to rebellion

Urging Slaves to Rebel African American illustrator, cartoonist, and sculptor Lorenzo Harris studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. His work was published by Crisis, the organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. An activist for civil rights, Harris self-published the booklet Negro History Quiz.

Harris’s 1936 interpretation of Nat Turner is of a charismatic, fierce, handsome, literate man with the oratory style of a preacher, as suggested by the Bible placed on a pedestal beside him. In this imagined and symbolic scene, Harris stresses Turner’s wide appeal with listeners reflecting the larger enslaved community—minus women—with young and elderly men, field hands and well-dressed domestics, some of whom are already armed and ready to rise.

This illustration fits with the portrait of Turner evoked in a play, written two years earlier by S. Randolph Edmonds, a pioneer playwright of the black theater, a Columbia University graduate, and the son of former Virginia slaves. Titled Nat Turner, the play written in vernacular portrays a strong, fierce man inspired by God to end slavery. There is no better way, Turner tells his companions, to declare to the world that black men are going to be free than to rise and fight.

Edmonds and Harris were not the only ones within the black community to honor Turner. In 1931, Crisis, The Liberator of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, and Opportunity, the organ of the National Urban League, had commemorated the centenary of the uprising.

Nat Turner Urging the Slaves to Rebellion. Photographs and Prints Division, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.