Gabriel Prosser is dead. The chances are except for a select few in the area of Richmond, Virginia. You have no idea who he is? It’s not surprising that he’s dead, given that he was born in 1776. Yet there’s a good chance he would have lived a lot longer than twenty-four years had he chosen his allies more wisely. It’s also true with better allies; his name might be more recognizable, in the same manner as Nat Turner or Toussant Louverture.
Gabriel Prosser was a blacksmith, and because of his trade, he was “hired out” to other plantations to work though as an enslaved person, “hired out” definitely didn’t mean he was getting paid for his services but that his owner was. Gabriel was also literate and well aware of national and international events, including the Haitian Revolution, which inspired him to plan a revolt of his own. Gabriel decided he would go big, hoping to get 1,000 other enslaved people along with “poor white people,” Quakers, Methodists, and the French, whose own revolution inspired the Haitian Revolution. Prosser met with two Frenchmen, who led him to believe he would get international assistance.
For those of you who never heard of Gabriel Prosser. You may be beginning to suspect something went wrong with his plan. Indeed, somebody snitched, and the revolution never got started. Twenty-seven enslaved people, including Gabriel, were hanged. The state of Virginia responded to the quashed revolution by restricting literacy for free and enslaved Black people and eliminating the practice of hiring out for a time. That law was made part of the Virginia Constitution in 1819.
That all meetings or assemblages of slaves, or free negroes or mulattoes mixing and associating with such slaves at any meeting-house or houses, &c., in the night; or at any SCHOOL OR SCHOOLS for teaching them READING OR WRITING, either in the day or night, under whatsoever pretext, shall be deemed and considered an UNLAWFUL ASSEMBLY; and any justice of a county, &c., wherein such assemblage shall be, either from his own knowledge or the information of others, of such unlawful assemblage, &c., may issue his warrant, directed to any sworn officer or officers, authorizing him or them to enter the house or houses where such unlawful assemblages, &c., may be, for the purpose of apprehending or dispersing such slaves, and to inflict corporal punishment on the offender or offenders, at the discretion of any justice of the peace, not exceeding twenty lashes.
One or more of Gabriel Prosser’s allies let him down. Gabriel initially escaped on a ship belonging to a former overseer that was a recently converted Methodist. Another enslaved person turned him in, hoping to receive the $300 reward posted and buy his own freedom. He only got $50 and remained enslaved. We will likely never know who initially told about the planned revolt, but there were many options.
The rat could have been one of the enslaved people recruited to the rebellion. Everyone wasn’t about risking their lives and potentially those close to them for freedom. At that time in Virginia, there were many free Black people though the definition of freedom differed from white-people freedom. Free Black people had curfews and could be snatched up at any time and sold into slavery despite whatever claims and papers they had. Maybe freedom didn’t sound worth the risk? There’s a plaque attributing the information coming from “Tom and Pharaoh,” enslaved by Mosby Sheppard, who informed the Governor. While that’s possible, it isn’t necessarily true. Blaming enslaved people was convenient, and others would rather not be named.
There were the “poor white people” enlisted in the plot. While one would think they would be natural allies. Powerful white people have always pitted poor white people against minorities to keep each other down to remain rich. Since Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, poor white people were encouraged to see themselves as superior to enslaved people though they once worked side-by-side when all were indentured servants. In those days, Virginia’s population was almost 40% Black, and the fear of rebellion, especially after the recent Haitian Revolution, was real.
Another potential ally of Prosser was Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party, who opposed the Federalists that Prosser saw as his main foe. The theory that the enemy of my enemy is my friend wouldn’t have worked because many in the Democratic-Republican Party were planters and plantation owners that depended on people’s enslavement. Jefferson himself was on a path to enriching himself and other Virginia slaveholders by eliminating the international slave trade and having America rely solely on domestic slave breeding and selling those enslaved people further south. He would accomplish that as President in 1808.
The French “allies” with whom he met might have had many reasons to sell out Prosser and his group to ingratiate themselves with the Governor or others? Then-President John Adams was on the brink of signing a peace treaty with France, and politics might have intervened against morals.
Whether in 1800 or today, the lesson to be learned is to be careful who you align yourself with because their interests may not be the same as your own. It’s why in 2020, we have a disparity of sentencing for minorities, voter suppression, over-policing of minority communities, inequities in pay, and housing discrimination. During suffrage, Black and white women worked together to achieve (partial) equality for women, but in the end, some white women were still outraged about being left out of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments which gave Black men the right to vote.
You have put the ballot in the hands of your Black men, thus making them political superiors of White women. Never before in the history of the world have men made former slaves the political masters of their former mistresses!
— Anna Howard Shaw, president of the National Women Suffrage Association.
White women ultimately sided with southerners to get the vote and ignored the calls to eliminate lynchings from their alleged partners like Ida B. Wells. Black and white allies had different goals. White women wanted equal rights for white men; Black women wanted real equality under the law. Black women are still possibly the most decisive force in American politics but have they been treated as true partners? The suffrage movement is just an example of what happens when your presumed allies really aren’t. Don’t rely totally on allies that may not be there for you. No group or political party is excluded.
For potential leaders out there who endeavor to make a change, I encourage you not only to dream and think big but also to think small. Those who knew of Gabriel Prosser’s plan may have included hundreds, many with their own agendas. Alliance, because of its nature, is almost always temporary. That would be something to keep in mind when forming your inner circle and seeking allies.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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