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Slave leader attempted ‘rebellion’ in 1800
Virginia State NAACP Conference requests pardon of Gabriel

By C. Ruth Ebrahim

There will be a special guest at the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP this year.

He won’t attend physically. He’ll be there in memory, in spirit.

In the spirit of the NAACP, the Virginia State Conference recently filed a request to Governor Tim Kaine’s office to issue a pardon for Gabriel Prosser. Gabriel, according to written history, was hanged in 1800 for his role in planning a failed slave rebellion that involved anywhere from 600 to 10,000 slaves and spanned multiple counties in Virginia, including Caroline. Linda Thomas, president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, said that the group wants to recognize Gabriel, not as a “rebel” but as a “patriot” and “freedom fighter.” The Virginia State Conference of the NAACP annual convention takes place Oct. 20-22 in Hampton Roads and features presentations by two Caroline County officials.

There will be no decision made on the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP's request. A representative of Gov. Kaine, Secretary of Administration Viola Baskerville is scheduled to address the group on Oct. 21. According to Mr. King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP, Baskerville will be limited to a three minute greeting.

"The Virginia State Conference meets with the Governor quarterly, and in fact will meet again with him on Oct. 25," Khalfani said in an email to The Caroline Progress. "Our Delegates receive reports from the President and Executive Director during the Convention. We will update them on our matters with the Governor. "

Thomas, who lives in Caroline County and has served as the President of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP for three years, said that the group does plan to address the request for Gabriel's pardon.

She said that the governor received the request on Aug. 30, during a quarterly meeting between the Gov. Kaine's office and the Virginia State Conference. The meeting, which was rescheduled from its original date, actually fell on the 206th anniversary of the planned date of the slave rebellion organized by Gabriel, according to written history.

"This is still all a work in progress, which we understand," Thomas said in a telephone interview on Oct. 16. "There's no indication that anyone's backing away from it."

Gov. Kaine's Chief of Staff Bill Leighty said on Monday that a representative of the governor's office will attend the annual convention, but that there will be no formal discussion of the governor's intentions regarding the pardon request.

He also said that there is not a clear understanding of how a potential pardon would be handled through the governor's office, as to whether the request would have to be voted on by the overall General Assembly in 2007.

"We have a request from the NAACP regarding Gabriel Prosser, but no decision has been made," he said. "We're in the very preliminary stages of looking at the legality of anything dealing with that."

Thomas said the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP will be discussing the possibility of Gabriel's pardon as a topic on which the group expects a favorable response from the governor.

She said she began thinking about the pardon of Gabriel during her third term as president of the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP. Thomas said it just felt like a good time to pursue the initiative, especially given the current governor's background as a civil rights attorney.

The president said that the State Conference of the NAACP views a pardon of Gabriel as a civil rights issue, because much of the written history regarding the planned slave rebellion describes the slave as criminal who planned to kill white people and capture the governor.

In her research prior to making the request to Gov. Kaine, Thomas stumbled across an important historian who shed a lot of light on the topic of Gabriel. Haskell S. Bingham, PH.D., is a professor and author who has published extensively on the history of Gabriel's rebellion.

Bingham is also the great-great grandson of Gabriel Prosser, whose surname was given from a slave master but may not have every been formally adopted by Gabriel, according to Bingham's reports. Bingham spoke at the unveiling of Gabriel's Marker in Richmond on Oct. 10, 2004--the 204th anniversary of the state that Gabriel was hanged for his involvement in the planned slave rebellion.

The City of Richmond also adopted a resolution in 2002 to commemorate the 202nd anniversary "of the execution of the patriot and freedom fighter, Gabriel, whose death stands as a symbol for the determination and struggle of slaves to obtain freedom, justice and equality as promised by the fundamental principles of democratic governments of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America."

Virginia State Conference of the NAACP President Thomas views the requested pardon as a further extension of the actions taken by the City of Richmond.

"Gabriel was guilty of no crime, as we see it," she said. "He was a freedom fighter in the truest sense of the word."

She compares Gabriel's fight for the right to life, and freedom to work, to that of other men commonly known as Patriots, like Patrick Henry. She said the request to pardon Gabriel is a request to elevate him to the same honored position as the historical figures known as the patriots who fought for the freedom of America.

She, nor the group she represents, denies the historical accounts of Gabriel's planned revolt. She said that, especially according to the histories written by Gabriel's great-great grandson, the slave leader did plan to storm the capital and capture the governor. However, as opposed to a lot of accepted history, she and others maintain that Gabriel and his "army" did not plan to kill any whites who did not actively resist their move to guarantee freedom for blacks in Virginia.

Gabriel's planned rebellion failed partly due to a heavy rainstorm the night that the attack was planned and partly due to fellow slave who told of the plot. Gabriel, two of his brothers, several of their cousins and about 20 other slaves were hanged following the discovery of their plan, according to a published history by Bingham.

Thomas said that she views the foiled plot not as a rebellion, but as a planned attack.

"It was a military action that was planned, not revenge," she said.

Though the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP plans to address its stand on the requested pardon of Gabriel, there is a full weekend of activities and workshops planned at the annual convention.

Caroline County Superintendent of Schools Stanley Jones will make a presentation on "Ending Disparities in Education" and Caroline Board of Supervisors member Floyd Thomas will make a presentation during a workshop on lobbying the government.

One of the key events of each annual convention is the Freedom Fund Banquet. Thomas said the history of the "freedom fund" dates back to when organizations raised money to assist blacks in obtaining legal counsel when they faced unfair prosecution.

Today, she said the freedom fund serves as a fundraiser for the non-profit NAACP branches. At the banquet this weekend, a King and Queen will be named for the two individuals in the state who raised the most money through volunteer fundraising efforts.

The Caroline County Branch of the NAACP recently held an annual Freedom Fund Banquet in the county. At the banquet, Superintendent Jones was presented with an image award.

At the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP annual convention this weekend, local leaders and issues will be at the forefront of the groups activities and discussions.

One of those issues, the requested pardon of Gabriel, originally impacted Caroline County during the discussions over whether to include Gabriel's Rebellion as a historical event of the county's Multicultural Monument, which stands on the courthouse lawn. In the end, specific mention of Gabriel was left off the monument.

The Caroline Progress