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.