Virginia pardons Gabriel Prosser
By Jeremy M. Lazarus Richmond Free Press
RICHMOND (NNPA) — He was hanged as a criminal from a Richmond scaffold
for leading the area's biggest slave revolt.
Now 207 years later, Gabriel Prosser has received a full pardon from Gov.
"I recognize Gabriel Prosser for his courage and devotion to the
fundamental Virginia values of freedom and equality," Gov. Kaine wrote in
issuing the pardon, "and I am pleased to restore officially his good
This is apparently the first time the leader of a slave revolt has
received a state pardon.
The state's 70th governor issued Gabriel Prosser's pardon in a June 26
letter to Linda Thomas, president of the state NAACP. He did so in
response to a request from the civil rights group.
The Virginia NAACP released the pardon letter last week as it prepared to
honor Gabriel Prosser and mark the anniversary of the 1800 slave revolt.
It did so at a public reception Aug. 30—the actual date of the revolt—at
its headquarters on the Virginia Union University campus.
Gabriel Prosser, a strapping enslaved blacksmith, organized hundreds of
followers with the goal of seizing Richmond to bargain for slaves'
freedom. The revolt was foiled by betrayal and failed after a major storm
on Aug. 30, 1800, forced postponement. Gabriel was hunted down and hanged
along with 26 of his followers.
Remembered largely in the Black community, he either went unmentioned or
was treated as a footnote in standard Virginia histories. But in the past
few years, he has gained more notice as greater attention has been paid
to Richmond's history as a slavery center. There is now a history marker
near Bryan Park recalling Gabriel and his revolt and last year a Richmond
forum focused on his role.
Gov. Kaine called it timely to issue the pardon. He noted that the
General Assembly this year had expressed "profound regret" for slavery
and that Richmond had dedicated a Slavery Reconciliation statue to atone
for its shameful past.
His pardon essentially reverses the actions of his slavery-supporting
predecessor of 1800, then Governor and later President James Monroe who
made him a criminal.
Gov. Kaine extolled Gabriel Prosser for "his devotion to the ideals of
the American Revolution—it was worth risking death to secure liberty.
"Today we see that Gabriel's quest for freedom was part of a great
American legacy of people striving to secure and protect inalienable
rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness," he wrote in the pardon
"Gabriel's cause—the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality of
all people — has prevailed in the light of history," he continued.
"This is a momentous occasion," state NAACP Executive Director Salim
Khalfani said in a statement praising the governor for taking such action
in the former capital of the Confederacy, where "monuments to the
traitors of the Union are maintained with tax dollars."
Mr. Khalfani told the Richmond Free Press the NAACP also had asked the
governor to pardon the 26 people who were hanged with him.
"We have to view this pardon as a first step," he said.
The governor has not indicated whether he also would be willing to pardon
other famous leaders of Virginia slave rebellions, such as Nat Turner,
who led an 1831 slave revolt in Southampton County, or John Brown, who is
remembered for the revolt he sought to ignite at Harper's Ferry in 1859
just before the Civil War.
1799 - 1800
Gabriel was born in 1776, on Thomas Prosser's tobacco plantation in
Henrico County, Virginia. When he was about ten, Gabriel and his brother
Solomon began training as blacksmiths. Although almost nothing is known
about Gabriel's parents, it is likely that his father was a blacksmith,
because skills were typically passed from generation to generation in
Virginia slave families. As a child, Gabriel was also taught to read and
Gabriel was unusually intelligent, and unusually large; by the age of 20
he was six feet, two or three inches tall, and was enormously strong from
his years of smithing. Even older slaves saw him as a leader.
Prosser died in 1798, and his son Thomas Henry Prosser, at the age of 22,
became the new master of the Brookfield Plantation. Thomas Henry was a
cruel and economically ambitious master, and it is likely that he pushed
his slaves too hard. He also hired out some of his skilled slaves,
including Gabriel and Solomon, a practice that was common in Virginia at
the time -- and one that allowed slaves more freedom than some Virginians
were comfortable with. Although the state legislature made laws
attempting to curtail hiring out, they were not enforced, largely because
local merchants and artisans relied heavily on the cheap labor that they
could get from hiring slaves, as opposed to white tradesmen.
Thomas Henry allowed Gabriel to hire himself out to masters in and around
Richmond, giving him access to a certain amount of freedom, as well as
money. Gabriel also met fellow hired slaves, free blacks, and white
laborers, with whom he shared work and leisure time.
Many free blacks, though they faced overwhelming discrimination, managed
to prosper as small business owners in the Richmond economy. Even more
threatening to city authorities were the bonds that were formed among
slaves, free blacks and working class whites, who worked and socialized
together, especially in a city in which whites, and especially wealthy
whites, were in the minority. Laws were passed curtailing socializing
between slaves and free blacks, and interracial grog shops were raided.
Gabriel experienced several strong influences: the rhetoric of the
American Revolution; the uprising in Saint Domingue, the radical words of
white artisans who championed the working class; the success exhibited by
free blacks; his own hatred of the merchants who routinely cheated the
slaves they hired; his desire to be free and to prosper. He was moving
toward a revolutionary stance that Solomon described in his court
confession: "My brother Gabriel was the person who influenced me to join
him and others in order that (as he said) we might conquer the white
people and possess ourselves of their property."
In September of 1799, Gabriel, Solomon, and a fellow slave named Jupiter
stole a pig. When caught by white overseer Absalom Johnson, Gabriel
wrestled him to the ground and bit off most of his ear. In court, he was
found guilty of maiming a white man, a capital offense, but Gabriel
escaped execution through a loophole called "benefit of clergy," that
allowed him to choose public branding over execution, if he could recite
a verse from the Bible. Gabriel recited his verse, and then was branded
in his left hand in open court. The branding, as well as the month he
spent in jail, was the last in a long chain of offenses that pushed him
toward open rebellion.
Inspired by Saint Domingue and spurred on by working-class talk of a
truly egalitarian society, Gabriel decided it was time to act. He
believed that if the slaves rose and fought for their rights, the poor
white people would join them. His plan involved seizing Capitol Square in
Richmond and taking Governor James Monroe as a hostage, in order to
bargain with city authorities. According to later testimony, one of the
conspirators also "was to go to the nation of Indians called Catawbas to
persuade them to join the negroes to fight the white people." It was also
believed that a French "army was landed at South Key, which they hoped
would assist them." Their banner would bear the motto "death or Liberty,"
the battle cry of Saint Domingue.
Gabriel conveyed his plan to Solomon and Ben, another of Prosser's
slaves, and the men began recruiting soldiers. They were later joined by
other recruiters, most notably Jack Ditcher and Ben Woolfolk. The rebels
did not include women in their army. While the majority of the men were
slaves, the conspirators also drew free blacks and a few white workers to
their cause, especially as they began recruiting in Richmond. Two
Frenchmen and militant abolitionists, Charles Quersey and Alexander
Beddenhurst, joined the ranks as leaders. A slave recruit named King,
when told of the plot, said, "I was never so glad to hear anything in my
life. I am ready to join them at any moment. I could slay the white
people like sheep."
The conspirators continued recruiting from Richmond and other Virginia
towns, including Petersburg, Norfolk and Albemarle, and from the counties
of Caroline and Louisa. After some difficulty, they were also successful
in recruiting slaves from the Henrico County countryside. In this way
they were preparing for the most far-reaching slave revolt ever planned
in U.S. history. They also amassed weapons and began hammering swords out
of scythes and molding bullets.
By August of 1800, Gabriel's army was ready. Their plan, necessarily more
elaborate now, included the taking of Norfolk and Petersburg by the men
living there. Gabriel announced that they would move on the night of
Saturday, August 30. As the lieutenants delivered news of the date to the
outlying areas, a rumor of insurrection surfaced among Richmond whites,
who reported it to Governor Monroe, who ignored it.
On August 30, a torrential rain began, described by James Callender, a
person in jail for violating the sedition law, as "the most terrible
thunder Storm... that I ever witnessed in this State." A handful of men
gathered at the appointed meeting spot, but it soon became clear that the
quickly rising water would make key roads and bridges impassable.
The conspirators decided to postpone until Sunday evening, August 31. But
before they had a chance to carry out their plan, slaves in two different
locations cracked under the pressure and told their masters. Soon
Governor Monroe was alerted, and white patrols, later joined by the state
militia, began roaming the countryside searching for rebels. Gabriel and
Jack Ditcher disappeared. Others eluded capture for several days, but by
September 9, almost 30 slaves were in jail awaiting trial in the court of
"Oyer and Terminer," a special court in which slaves were tried without
benefit of jury.
When the trials began on September 11, Gabriel and Ditcher were still at
large, and white authorities had no idea of how extensive the
insurrection had been. But white Virginians were terrified at the thought
of how close the danger had come. One white fear, typical in times of
black rebellion, was that black men were out to get white women.
One strategy that the white authorities used was to offer a full pardon
to a handful of slaves who were willing to give testimony against the
other conspirators. Gervas Storrs and Joseph Seldon, two of the court
magistrates, found two key witnesses in this way: Ben, one of Prosser's
slaves, and Ben Woolfolk. Prosser's Ben came forward first, and his
testimony sent a number of slaves from his area to the gallows, including
Gabriel's brothers Solomon and Martin. But Prosser's Ben did not have
enough contact with slaves from the outlying areas, and so the court
looked to Ben Woolfolk to give the damning evidence. Other slaves
provided further testimony.
On September 14, Gabriel swam to a schooner called Mary on the James
River. He asked to see the captain, a white man named Richardson Taylor.
Two black men on board, Taylor's former slave Isham and a slave named
Billy, identified Gabriel as the leader of the plot. Though a former
overseer, Taylor had apparently had a change of heart about slavery. He
attempted to take Gabriel to freedom. However, when the ship docked in
Norfolk, Billy alerted white authorities to Gabriel's presence on board,
no doubt thinking of the $300 reward being offered for Gabriel's capture.
Gabriel and Taylor were both arrested. Billy was rewarded, but not what
he had expected. He received $50, far below what he needed to purchase
On October 6, Gabriel was put on trial. Several witnesses came forward,
but Gabriel himself refused to make a statement. He was sentenced to be
executed the next day, but asked that his sentence not be carried out
until October 10, so that he could be executed along with six other
slaves who were to hang on that day. The court agreed, but on October 10
they hanged the slaves in three different locations; Gabriel was hanged
alone on the town gallows.
In all, the trials lasted almost two months, and 26 slaves were executed
by hanging; one more died by hanging while in custody. At least 65 slaves
were tried; of those not hanged, some were transported to other states,
some were found not guilty, and a few were pardoned. By law, slaveholders
had to be reimbursed by the state for lost property, so in cases where
slaves were executed or transported, their masters were reimbursed for
their total worth declared by the court. Virginia paid over $8900 to
slaveholders for the executed slaves.
Although most of the suspects were tried in Richmond, blacks captured in
other counties were tried in those locations. Many of them shared the
same fates as the Richmond slaves. However, in Hanover County, two slaves
escaped with the help of blacks outside the prison and were never
recovered. In Norfolk County, the magistrates questioned slaves and
working-class whites alike, trying to find witnesses. But no one,
including the accused slaves, would come forward with evidence, and the
slaves were released. In Petersburg, four free blacks were arrested, but
they too were released after the frustrated authorities could find no
viable witnesses. There were slaves willing to give condemning evidence,
but the testimony of slaves against free people was inadmissible in
There is no full-length biography of Gabriel. There are short
biographical accounts in Herbert Aptheker, Essays in the History of the
American Negro (1945) and in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro
Biographies (1968). The best account of his rebellion is in Joseph C.
Carroll, Slave Insurrections in the United States, 1800-1865 (1938).
Additional information is contained in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro
Slave Revolts (1943; new ed. 1969), and in Robert McColley, Slavery and
Jeffersonian Virginia (1964). Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder (1936), is a
fictionalized treatment of Gabriel and his conspiracy.
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