In African American history many times it is simply the effort, or better yet, the will to fight against a formidable enemy and insurmountable odds that defines bravery. Our leaders are rarely, if ever, successful when they choose to press the fight against white supremacy. Nevertheless, that has not stopped particular men and women from fighting for their own humanity and the humanity of those closest to them. The name Gabriel Prosser can be added the list of unsuccessful heroes who fought and died for the cause of African liberation. However, for rebellions such as Prosser’s, and many others throughout human history, the point is the rebellion itself. Such an act, regardless of the measure of success, rings throughout history as an effort to establish a sense of autonomy. By extension the review and celebration of such an act ensures that the spirit of those actions taken were not in vain.
Prosser’s life began on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. He and his brothers (Solomon and Martin) were raised to be blacksmiths and grew to be strong in stature. They were enslaved to a man named Thomas Prosser, a notable Brookfield tobacco planter who had a certain amount of clout in Henrico County. As Blacksmiths, Gabriel his family were relatively well taken care of by Thomas. Moreover, Gabriel had the added benefit of being taught how to read and write (it is not clear if he learned this skill in secret or with the permission of Thomas Prosser). As Gabriel grew he gained a certain level of respect in Henrico County from both bonds person and planters alike in large part because he was hired out as a skilled blacksmith, which allowed him visibility and a certain amount of mobility in Henrico county and the Richmond community.
Additionally, during this time period there was a zeitgeist of independence and freedom that dominated the region. Much of this sentiment came directly from the Methodist church. To explain, though the church had little respect for African people and their culture, traditions and/or religion, what the Methodist church did respect was the need for human freedom. For the Methodists, human bondage was an egregious sin that led to greed and cruelty against one’s fellow man. This, combined with the Quakers growing political power in the region, worked to convince the planters of Henrico County that it was not only spiritually prudent to abolish slavery but also economically so. This made the region ripe for change.
In the weeks and months leading up to the attempted insurrection there was dispute with the enslaver of Gabriel, Thomas Prosser, and a neighboring landowner named Absalom Johnson. Apparently, Gabriel and his brother Solomon were in a physical altercation with Johnson, which left him injured. As a result, he filed charges against Gabriel’s enslaver because he was responsible for any action taken by his property. In this case, Solomon was tried and acquitted for his part in the altercation. For Gabriel on the other hand, his accuser moved to have Gabriel tried for maiming which carried with it the possibility of him being executed for his crime. However, there is a very interesting quality with regard to the Prosser case: because of his position as a slave preacher, when he was put on trial for the maiming of Absalom Johnson Prosser claimed “benefit of clergy”. “Benefit of clergy” is a significant piece of legislation developed in 12th century England, which put the defendant outside of the bound of secular court. Therefore, if a member of the clergy is charged with a crime, instead of being tried in a civil or criminal court, the individual claiming “benefit of clergy” is to be tried in an ecclesiastical court under canon law. This law essentially boils down to a member of the clergy accepting divine authority over state authority. And in this particular case, the “benefit of clergy" law saved Gabriel’s life, at least for a time.
Prosser’s rebellion was planned for August 30, 1800. Leading up to the 30th Gabriel and his brothers recruited more than 30 (enslaved) people and even had the sympathy of a number of poor whites in the area. However, the plans for rebellion were postponed due to torrential rain. This delay was all the land-owners of the region needed; they got wind of Prosser’s plans and were therefore able to go on the offensive. Knowing their plans were foiled, Prosser and his brothers went on the run and remained at-large for a number of days until there were finally captured and executed for their crimes.
It is doubtful that Prosser would have able to plea for his life a second time under the “benefit of clergy” clause, despite the fact that no body was killed in this thwarted rebellion. Regardless, what is critically important here is that Prosser provided future generations with the courage to fight against a powerful enemy. From Gabriel Prosser to Sanda Bland, the list is long and the names are many of our heroes that have fell to violence for only speaking their truth in search of freedom. Furthermore, the unfortunate and uncomfortable truth of our reality as African people is that a hero’s life is often a short one and one day one of us may be called on to set that example once again.
 Bert M. Mutersbaugh. "The Background of Gabriel's Insurrection." The Journal of Negro History 68, no. 2 (1983): 209-11.
 Joyce Tang. "Enslaved African Rebellions in Virginia." Journal of Black Studies 27, no. 5 (1997): 598-614. Tang argues that Virginia in particular was a hotbed for rebellion because of nine legal features that were not on the book in any other state. Tang states: “First, enslaved Africans were prohibited to travel to any place without their "'master's" permission. Second, they were forbidden from lifting their hands against any White Christians. Third, Whites were guaranteed the absolute right to discipline their "property"-enslaved Africans. Fourth, enslaved and free Africans were not allowed to carry any arms. Fifth, association with others, Whites and non-Whites, was unlawful. Sixth, all Africans, regardless of their status, were not allowed to learn how to read and write. Seventh, enslaved Africans could not practice their own religion. Eighth, once they were freed, Africans had to leave the colony within a specific period of time. And ninth, enslaved Africans were subject to forced relocation to Liberia after emancipation.” All states had some types of law on the books to control their African population. However, Virginia may have had these points of legislation on the books in part because they are a commonwealth.
 Douglas R. Egerton (1993). Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 21–22.
 Reading and writing was seen as a serious problem for the enslavers of Virginia, particularly after this Rebellion. So much so, that in the months following Prosser’s action enslavers passed more stringent restrictions on free Blacks and the tighten up the laws on the literacy of Africans.
 Douglas R. Egerton (1993). Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 8-9.
 Ibid., 11-12. Arguments were made in the Virginia legislature that this course of action was economically and politically necessary in order to survive the social turmoil caused by the approaching revolution.
 Joyce Tang. "Enslaved African Rebellions in Virginia." Journal of Black Studies 27, no. 5 (1997): 599-600. “Such factors as (a) changes in the plantation economy, (b) a large concentration of enslaved Africans in the colony, and (c) the prevalence of antislavery and revolutionary philosophies had fostered the development of revolts.”
 Bert M. Mutersbaugh. "The Background of Gabriel's Insurrection." The Journal of Negro History 68, no. 2 (1983): 209.
 J.H. Baker, An Introduction to English Legal History (4th ed. 2002) pp. 513–15.
 Jeffrey K. Sawyer, "Benefit of Clergy in Maryland and Virginia", American Journal of Legal History 34, no. 1 (January 1990): 49–68.
 Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 692-93, 44 L.Ed.2d 508, 515-16, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 1886; (1975).
 Douglas R. Egerton (1993). Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press), 10-11.
 C. Ruth Ebrahim. “Virginia State NAACP Conference requests pardon of Gabriel”. The Caroline Register, Oct 2006. Accessed June 2018. “[T]he 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.”