When people think of Virginia’s past, Gabriel’s Rebellion may not come to mind despite it being yet another key aspect of American history that took place here. After being inspired by tales of black uprisings in Saint-Domingue, Gabriel, a literate, enslaved blacksmith in Henrico County, planned a revolt to lead slaves into Richmond on Aug. 30, 1800.
Rain postponed the plans and then two enslaved men confessed the plan to their owner.
“As trapped as they were by slavery and geography, they were people who never saw themselves as mere victims, but active participants in events of the post-revolutionary world that affected everything from daily life to governing decisions,” explains Ana Edwards, public historian and chair of the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project.
The project was launched in 2004 by the Virginia Defenders for Justice, Freedom & Equality to reclaim and properly memorialize the Black history of Shockoe Bottom. Once the epicenter of the domestic slave trade, Shockoe Bottom’s history actually began in the 17th century and includes Gabriel’s Rebellion and the African Burial Ground at 15th and East Broad Street. It’s notable for being Richmond’s first municipal cemetery designated for the burial of Black people, as well as for being the site of the city gallows where many members of the slave revolt of 1800 were hanged, including its principal organizer and strategist, 24-year-old Gabriel. “All Richmonders should know this fuller context to our stories of Richmond, Virginia, and the early years of the United States wrestling with its identity as a nation,” Edwards says.
The 18th annual Gabriel Gathering takes place Saturday, Oct. 10, at the burial ground. Social distancing will be required and represented visually by flowers laid out on a 6-foot grid across a designated area. The program includes historical presentations and an update on the progress of the Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park, after which people are invited to visit the temporary historical markers and lay flowers in tribute. Organizers suggest that attendees dress for the weather and bring flashlights or battery powered candles and folding chairs if they prefer to sit.
The annual commemoration of Gabriel’s Rebellion and those interred in Richmond’s first Black burial ground is intended to be a touchstone event reminding attendees that they have a place in Richmond to connect to the city’s troubled past.
“It’s an opportunity to share the experience of learning about the past to help us understand the complexities of the present,” Edwards says. “At least enough to challenge the inequities of our time and work for a better place for all our children.”
Since 2015, the Sacred Ground Historical Reclamation Project has campaigned for the city to preserve the last parcels of land on which the history of American slavery can be told, from its earliest debates in Virginia through Richmond’s ascension to the role of epicenter of the U.S. domestic slave trade from 1830 through 1865. The realization of the 9-acre proposal for Shockoe Bottom Memorial Park includes securing the private and public property within the footprint and, as funding permits, laying the groundwork for the phased development of the structural and landscape design of a multi-purpose memorial and educational campus.
The group believes that the struggle to reclaim the African Burial Ground is an act of self-determination by the Black community, to act on their right to know their history and to determine when and how historical and cultural resources – so long out of their control - would be preserved and interpreted. Edwards says she was moved by the story of Gabriel’s Rebellion and the way that it led her to re-examine American history to understand the decisions debated and made in order to create a new nation.
“I had to understand a nation that made the enslavement of Africans absolutely essential to its existence, while professing the natural free state of every born human,” she says.
Initially Edwards was reluctant to represent the project in public until reminded that she had ancestors who were sold from Richmond, so even though she’s a Californian by birth, she’s also a descendant of Virginians.
After years of telling Gabriel’s story, she’s learned that for many people, it becomes a pathway to the history of Richmond that they think they aren’t interested in, until they hear it told from the places where it took place.
“We hold this commemorative event on the Burial Ground every year to honor the memory of those who attempted the rebellion and those free and enslaved Black people who were buried in that desolate spot on the slopes of Shockoe Hill along the banks of Shockoe Creek,” Edwards says. “The history binds us to the present but also frees us to do the future better.”
18th annual Gabriel Gathering is held Saturday, Oct. 10, at 5:30 p.m., African Burial Ground, 15th and East Broad Street. SacredGroundProject.net.