HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — The story of Gabriel is one that could have changed history books, if his rebellion was successful, however his plan to attack the city of Richmond and destroy slavery in Virginia failed.
Gabriel was born in 1776 in Henrico County and worked as a slave on the Brookefield Plantation. He was owned by Thomas Prosser, which is why he’s sometimes referred to as Gabriel Prosser — his slave name.
Although Gabriel was born into slavery, he was what you would call a ‘skilled slave.’ He was a blacksmith who could read and write. He had a lot more freedom than other slaves; for example he was allowed to travel and work at different places around Virginia.
8News sat down with historian Pamela Bingham, a direct descendant of Gabriel, who has been studying the story of Gabriel and African American history for decades.
Bingham’s father is a devoted teacher and historian; together they’ve pieced together the Bingham ancestry connecting back to Gabriel.
“Gabriel is a freedom fighter and we are very proud,” Bingham said. We look at him as an American Patriot of no less stature of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.”
Bingham said she’s learned a large part of her family history by communicating and having it passed down orally through many generations.
“My family history was passed down orally,” Bingham said. “There are lots of ministers in the Bingham family, even going back to Gabriel who considered himself a preacher.”
Gabriel was a preacher with a plan, who devoted his life to ending slavery in the Commonwealth.
There is a very famous picture of Gabriel floating around, but Bingham told 8News it is not him and the picture depicts a U.S Colored Troop.
“There is no real picture of Gabriel,” Bingham said.”People were considered property, so they don’t have photographs.”
To this day, exactly what Gabriel looks like is a mystery, but his story is one that is well-known.
“There is a myth out there that slaves were content and that myth is very pervasive in Virginia,” said Bingham. “They acted like no rebellions happened.”
At 24-years-old, Gabriel is said to have planned a mass rebellion in Richmond that could have ended slavery sooner.
Often traveling by foot and horse across Central Virginia, Gabriel recruited hundreds of slaves to take over Richmond and capture then-Governor James Monroe.
After months of planning, August 30, 1800, the night had come, but there was a huge summer storm. The storm washed away bridges, flooded dirt roads and overflowed the rivers.
Unable to travel, Gabriel was forced to delay the rebellion, which spooked some slaves.
A few slaves ended up telling their masters about the planned rebellion, putting the militia on high-alert. Assembling rather quickly, the militia was on the hunt for Gabriel and others behind the planned rebellion.
“They just started rounding up blacks indiscriminately and killing them,” Bingham shared.
Eventually, Gabriel was captured in Norfolk after someone gave up his hiding place on a ship. Gabriel and others were hanged at the Richmond Gallows in Downtown Richmond, which is now 15th and West Broad Streets.
“It really made the arrogant slave owners aware that black people actually had brains and could think,” Bingham said. “They were terrified by the fact that this man could organize in the way that he did and they didn’t know.”
Although Gabriel was executed, his planned rebellion is still remembered in Central Virginia today. There is a marker that sits on West Broad Street near Richmond’s African Burial Ground. There are also two other markers in Henrico and Caroline Counties.
In 2002, Richmond City Council passed a resolution acknowledging Gabriel as a Freedom Fighter and in 2007 Governor Tim Kaine pardoned Gabriel, restoring his name as a Civil Rights leader.
It’s been 220 years since the foiled rebellion and people like Bingham are working hard to keep Gabriel’s name and story alive.
Later this year an ‘Emancipation and Freedom Monument’ will be built on Browns Island honoring Virginians who fought for freedom. Gabriel, Nat Turner, and Reverend Wyatt Tee Walker are just a few freedom fighters you can expect to see featured on the monument.