TALE OF TWO CITIES? Slave Rebellion in Virginia

 “Gabriel’s cause- the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality of all people- has prevailed in the light of history…  It is important to acknowledge that history favorably regards Gabriel’s cause while consigning legions who sought to keep him and others in chains to be forgotten.”  (Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, during the 2007 pardon of Gabriel Prosser)

High school French lessons gave me an appreciation for the French culture, its people and the diffusive legacy of the French Revolution, long before joining the Navy and being home-ported in southern France. In the mid-1960’s, during Bastille Day celebrations, while boozing it up with other sailors and marines, as well as the local crowd, I used to sing along with the “La Marseillaise” (French national anthem), in fluent French.  It was spiced with so much vigor and “Provencal patois” (a local dialect) that a local tavern owner, claimed by rumors as a “long-barreled-Luger crack-shot” in the French Resistance, once dubbed me as “La Monsieur Du Bois,” playing on my French middle name.  Since the July 14, 1789 fall of Bastille, their national motto, Liberté, égalité, fraternité (“Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood”) has fanned the flames of freedom across the ocean to the blood-soaked soils of rebellion in the western hemisphere- even to the sandy shores of Virginia.

On August 30, 2007, the Governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine (2006-2010) boldly pardoned the leader of one notorious uprising, “Gabriel’s Rebellion,” 207 years in the wake of the Richmond gallows trapdoor, near Shockhoe Bottom, swinging open to a crowd of vengeful whites, on October 10, 1800. This 15th & Broad Streets execution, with Gabriel Prosser’s battered body swinging from a coiled hangman’s noose, was in retaliation for this cunning blacksmith’s commanding role in the failed slave revolt, earmarked for August 30, 1800.

During Governor Kaine’s symbolic gesture, he reminded all Virginians that Prosser was motivated by “his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution” which were “…worth risking death to secure liberty,” according to an Associated Press news account. In a publicized letter to the Virginia NAACP, Kaine further announced, “I recognize Gabriel Prosser for his courage and devotion to the fundamental Virginia values of freedom and equality and I am pleased to restore officially his good name.”

Imagine how Gabriel might have felt, if present for this politically brave proclamation.  How would Nanny, his wife, finally feel? Or, Soloman and Martin, his two brothers, also hanged along with 23 other slaves, for an uprising foiled by snitching co-conspirators and a furious rain storm.  “How grateful they all must be for a dream partially, but finally, fulfilled…” At least, those were my thoughts while mulling over my own life experiences which might have connected with the mindset of these black freedom fighters. A few years ago, while researching my bit role as one of the rebellious slaves with Prosser, in a local Black-History-Month play called “The Life & Times of Gabriel Prosser(a “Compassion Ministries” drama production), the associated findings caused me to ponder their special thirst for freedom.

As a child, growing up in a Southern Baptist home, in Kentucky, I recall often being scared to death of going to sleep at night, after hearing certain ghoulish tales linked to “Voodoo” (primitive religion/ spiritual system of faith and rituals).  These were yarns recounted by elder relatives and others, within various stories of the “living dead,” passed down through the ages, by descendants of slaves coming from Ghana and Nigeria.  They believed that a person who died a violent death would not rest, but their “restless souls” would somehow find a new purpose, or means of continuing an important dream- not always an altruistic one- within the spirit of those still living, breathing and walking among us. They called them “haints.”  But, I knew a few of them as shadows of certain inanimate objects, like coats and hats hanging in my room, which seemed to come alive at night, on the heels of their spooky narratives. For comfort, I simply switched on the lights and snuggled between my toy cap-pistol and baseball bat, in order to fall asleep.

Academically speaking, according to the research of Douglas Egerton (“Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802,” Univ of North Carolina Press, 1993), “Black Baptists retained enough of the West African worldview to believe that a restless soul who died unnaturally would not pass into the spirit world but instead would find a home in the body of a newborn child.”  Interestingly, eight days before Prosser’s execution, a baby boy was born to a slave couple, on Benjamin Turner’s plantation in Southampton County, Virginia.  “The couple called their son Nathaniel, an Old Testament name meaning ‘gift of God.’ The Henrico magistrates (which hanged Prosser) had only hanged a man.  They could not kill the dream,” according to Egerton.  Thirty years later, this same Nathaniel “Nat” Turner led a violent slave rebellion, resulting in at least 56 white deaths, reportedly the largest number of white fatalities recorded in a single uprising in the Antebellum South.

Like Prosser, Nat Turner also had a dream for liberty.  His thirst for freedom was whetted by years of bible teachings and prayer.  He was said to be influenced by various visions and solar eclipses, interpreted as God’s messages to stoke the fires of insurrection.  Initially planned for July 4, 1831, a sundry of postponements delayed igniting the rebellion until August 21, 1831.  Turner was later captured, brutally tortured and executed, with 56 other vindictively accused blacks in the rebellion.  Public records show that he was hanged on November 11, 1831, in the area now known as Courtland, Virginia. According to archives, his body was viciously “flayed, beheaded and quartered.” Investigations-related travel took me to this beautiful and friendly area, many times.  Yet, though often armed, I still thought about the evil mobs and militias which sought revenge by beating and murdering another 200 black Virginians.

Fifteen years ago, while pursuing independent post-graduate studies in Ancient African History, a co-worker of mine noticed my interest in slave resistance.  He requested that I speak at his Brunswick County church’s Black History celebration, a couple of counties removed from Nat Turner’s South Hampton County rage. During the presentation, the French Revolution backdrops of Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” loomed in my mind.  It became clear to me, through the window of weathered faces of slavery’s descendants, especially the pensive expressions of the elders, that this audience had a serene sense of appreciation for the occasional stoking of the fires of insurrection.  In the conversations that followed, as if Nat Turner was never born, I sensed their understanding of how fanning the flames of rebellion often reset the course for freedom toward a more humane social order.

Heeding the warnings of France’s 18th Century revolution, the brutality of plantation slave owners versus the brutality of those in rebellion- against cruel and inhumane regimes- is a compass direction for disaster.  Sowing the seeds of rebellion- as did France’s aristocracy in their unjust treatment of French peasants- will surely reap the harvest of devastation and upheaval, no matter what side of the ocean they’re planted, including the blood-soaked soil of Virginia.  This, I finally understood.

How about you?  Have the lessons of history been successful at stifling class-related inhumanity?  Or, are we simply doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past?

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

(previously posted @ rizingcubenterprises…)

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.