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Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project

Gabriel and the Rebellion
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The Story of Gabriel

He was a proud Black man, born into slavery but determined to be free.

At the age of 24, he organized what many historians consider the most extensive, well-planned attempt at a mass slave rebellion in U.S. history.

Every school child should know his story. There should be a statue of him on Virginia's Capitol Square. Schools should be named after him. Bridges. Libraries. Cities.

His name was Gabriel.

Some people know him as Gabriel Prosser, but there's no evidence that he ever took or was given the surname of the Henrico County plantation owner who held him in bondage.

A tall, imposing, literate blacksmith, Gabriel was born in 1776, the year of the American Revolution that proclaimed "all men are created equal."

Evidently, he took those words to heart.

He also was likely influenced by the successful Haitian slave revolution, begun in 1791, reports of which were eagerly followed in Richmond. Of the city's 5,700 residents, the majority were enslaved African-Americans.

And in the election year of 1800, Gabriel knew that bitter conflicts were raging between the Federalists and the somewhat more democratic Republicans. He began to see an opportunity to turn the rhetoric of the American Revolution into reality.

His plan was to recruit an army of enslaved Blacks and march into Richmond from Henrico County. As a diversion, one contingent would set fire to the warehouse district by Rockett's Landing. Meanwhile, another would seize the city armory, while a third would capture Gov. James Monroe, holding him hostage until the area's slave owners agreed to the demand for freedom.

All who agreed would be embraced as equals.

All who resisted would be killed.

They would march behind a banner inscribed with the words "Death or Liberty!" - a slogan of the Haitian Revolution.

The plan depended in part on Gabriel's belief that other poor and oppressed people would join the rebellion - free and enslaved Blacks, as well as working-class whites and Indians.

Beginning in the spring of 1800, Gabriel began to organize.

Quietly, carefully, he recruited his soldiers. Assisted by his wife Nan, his brothers Solomon and Martin and a fiery giant of a man named Jack Bowler, he built a small circle of trusted lieutenants, each of whom was assigned specific tasks.

Blacksmiths secretly fashioned plowshares into swords. Literate slaves wrote passes, allowing recruiters to travel widely to spread the word. Watermen carried the news down the James River to Norfolk.

Gabriel himself, hired out to work in Richmond, spent his Sundays wandering the town, impressing its features in his mind - especially the locations of arms and ammunition.

The conspiracy grew, involving thousands in at least 10 counties, as well as the cities of Richmond, Petersburg and Norfolk.

Throughout this dangerous work, no traitors emerged - or if they did, they were cowed into silence by the fierce determination of the revolutionists.

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To be sure, the slave owners were picking up hints of trouble: An overheard conversation, a missing firearm, a runaway slave. In a letter to Vice President Thomas Jefferson dated April 22, 1800, Gov. Monroe referred to "fears of a Negro insurrection."

But Jefferson, like many slaveholders at the time, found it hard to believe that slaves could be capable of complex, large-scale organization. Some even believed that these sons and daughters of Africa had resigned themselves to lives of servitude. Their white supremacist arrogance was a major advantage for Gabriel and his co-conspirators.

Finally the date of the uprising was set: Aug. 30. It would be a Saturday night, and groups of Black people walking into the city were less likely to arouse suspicion.

But as the freedom fighters made their way to their meeting place just north of Brook Creek, nature intervened in a terrible way. Richmond was deluged with one of its late-summer thunderstorms. This one was unusually fierce. A torrential rain pounded the roads, making them impassable. The streams and creeks overflowed, washing away bridges.

Gabriel and the other leaders decided to postpone the rebellion until the following day. The delay proved fatal. The great tension and unexpected change of plans proved too much for one of the conspirators. A Henrico County slave named Pharaoh shared the secret with a fellow slave named Tom. Together they told a member of their owner's family.

By Sunday afternoon, the governor was taking action. Local militias were hastily mobilized and deployed. Groups of armed whites combed the countryside, rounding up suspects.

Among the slave owners, panic reigned. As news of the aborted rebellion spread, town officials across the region pleaded with the governor to send arms and ammunition.

For weeks, Gabriel himself eluded capture. Finally he left his hiding place, swam out into the James River and boarded a three-masted schooner called the Mary. For some reason the white captain, a recently converted Methodist named Richardson Taylor, decided not to turn in the tall stranger, even though it is unlikely he did not suspect his identity.

But there was a $300 reward for whoever found Gabriel, and shortly after the ship arrived in Norfolk, one of the Mary's crewmen went looking for the sheriff.

It was Sept. 23 - more than three weeks after the failed rebellion. Gabriel was returned to Richmond and became one of the first residents of the newly built Virginia State Penitentiary.

In all, at least 26 of the revolutionaries were tried, condemned to death and executed. Many more were sold into hellish lives on the steaming plantations of the Deep South.

Gabriel was the last to hang, on Oct. 10, 1800. He had asked to die with his comrades, but that simple request was denied. With his hands bound behind him, he rode standing in the back of a tumbrel to the Richmond Gallows in the middle of the Burial Ground for Negroes near 15th and Broad streets.

According to West African traditions, a restless soul who dies unnaturally does not pass into the spirit world. Instead, it finds a home in the body of a newborn child.

Eight days before Gabriel's death, a baby boy had been born on the Southampton County plantation of Benjamin Turner.

His parents called him Nathaniel.

The Old Testament name means "gift of God."

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Visit the historical marker honoring the life and struggle of Gabriel, slave rebellion leader, located on the sidewalk overlooking the endangered "Burial Ground for Negroes" at 1554 E. Broad Street, in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom Historic District.