Richmond program to honor ‘Gabriel's Rebellion’

By Phil Wilayto, Richmond Va., Workers World, 14 October 2004

When the remnants of Tropical Storm Gaston rolled over Central Virginia this past summer, meteorologists predicted it would quickly pass through the region. Instead it hung over Richmond, pounding the state's capital with sheets of driving rain.

By the time it moved on, Gaston had caused eight deaths and $62 million in damages, devastating the business area in Richmond's historic valley known as Shockoe Bottom.

This happened on Aug. 30. Ironically, that was the date in 1800 when a similar storm disrupted plans for what came to be known as Gabriel's Rebellion.

Thousands of enslaved Black people, led by a 24-year-old blacksmith named Gabriel, had planned to march into Richmond and seize the capitol and governor in a bid to end slavery in Virginia.

Delayed by the storm and then betrayed by two of their fellow slaves, at least 26 of the conspirators paid for their courageous effort with their lives.

Gabriel was the last to be executed, on Oct. 10, 1800, at the city gallows in Shockoe Bottom.

This Oct. 10, a Richmond organization called the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality will unveil a state historical highway marker at the site of the gallows.

Titled Gabriel's Execution, the marker will be Richmond's first official physical recognition of Gabriel's Rebellion. This in a city littered with monuments to slavery-defending Confederate generals.

The marker also notes that the gallows stood in the Burial Ground for Negroes, a Black cemetery more than two centuries old that today lies unrecognized and nearly forgotten under a privately owned parking lot.

Shockoe Bottom, now struggling with its recovery, has been in the local news for much of this year. It's where a group of wealthy investors wants to build a commercial baseball stadium, ignoring local preservationists' pleas that the Bottom was where the city was formally established in 1737.

But Shockoe Bottom has another, deeper significance: As much as any other area, it's where people from many different African cultures were forged into a new nation, one bearing a common oppression and a common history of resistance.

As the United States approached the end of the 18th century, the hideous system of slavery came under increasing attack. Then the invention of the cotton gin in the mid-1790s renewed the demand for super-cheap agricultural labor.

In 1803, France, deeply shaken by the recent successful slave revolt in its former colony of Haiti, sold its vast holdings in North America to the United States, spurring the development of huge new plantations in the Deep South.

But the new plantation owners soon had a problem: U.S. involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade was banned by a bitterly divided Congress in 1807.

Virginia slaveholders, faced with failing soil and an expanding slave population, sensed a business opportunity. Already the state with the most slaves, Virginia became a breeder state, where human beings were literally grown as a cash crop.

And one of the biggest markets was located in Richmond's Shockoe Bottom.

Between 1808 and the end of the Civil War, some 300,000-350,000 people of African descent were sold out of the valley's auction houses. By 1865, the Black population in the United States numbered about 4 million. That means that millions of African-Americans today can trace at least part of their ancestry to this small piece of real estate in Richmond.

In a sense, Shockoe Bottom is the Goree Island of the United States.

That story is seldom told in Richmond, or anywhere else, and never in its entirety. Until now.

On Oct. 10, before the marker unveiling, the Defenders will host a seminar titled Slavery in Virginia, Richmond's Role in the Slave Trade and Gabriel's Rebellion.

Scheduled presenters include Dr. Haskell Bingham, a former Virginia State University official and a great-great-grandson of Gabriel; Elvatrice Belsches, an author who lectures on Richmond's slave-trading history; Dr. Douglas Egerton, author of Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802; and Dr. Michael Blakey, a former Howard University anthropologist who directed the study of the African Burial Ground in New York City.

Participants will then march to the site of the marker unveiling in what organizers are calling a symbolic reenactment of Gabriel's planned march into Richmond.

One of the seminar organizers and participants is Ana Edwards, a Defender whose own ancestors include two women sold out of Shockoe Bottom.

We hope to make some small contribution to setting straight this important part of Richmond's history, Edwards said. I was born in Los Angeles, but my ancestors were sold from Shockoe Bottom during the 1840s, the height of Richmond's exportation period. This area is important to Black people all over the country and we intend to make it crystal clear that no baseball stadium will be built on this sacred land.

For more information about the Oct. 10 program, visit the Defenders' Web site at: