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Josh Bingham, center, born in 1871, was the first free descendant of his great-grandfather, the slave blacksmith Gabriel. Photo courtesy Yvonne Walker
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Near 15th and Broad streets, Haskell Bingham unveiled the historic marker recognizing his ancestor , Gabriel, in 2004.
Haskell Bingham's earliest known ancestor in Virginia was given a name he couldn't keep.
The African man, born in 1703, came to the James River plantation of Robert "King" Carter with the name "Bingham" — bestowed upon him by the captain of the slave ship that brought him to America. His new owner renamed him John, however, and so the family name that survives today was passed along in secret.
As the dedicated family historian of his generation, Bingham has spent a half-century researching the varying branches of his bloodline, a lineage that also passes through Richmond's famed renegade slave Gabriel, whose failed insurrection in 1800 could have changed history as we know it.
At 81, Bingham, a retired former vice president for academic affairs at Virginia State University, has completed the genealogical component of his family history. He's working to finish a narrative buttressed by court and tax records, plantation journals, genealogy and family tradition and estimates another two years before he'll complete his life's work.
"As a boy, my father would take me with him, to visit Bingham descendants," he says. "They'd bring Bibles and records, and stuff written down on grocery-bag paper, and deal with their relationships. He'd ask me, ‘You got that, boy?' I was the record keeper at 13."
Bingham grew up in Mississippi during the thick of the civil rights era. While a student at Jackson State University he canvassed for black voter registration.
On a 1956 university-related trip to Rhodesia, he traveled to Durban, South Africa, to visit the private library of renowned archivist Margaret Roach Killie Campbell to track down his family's origins. He walked the earth of his ancestors.
Bingham accepted a position with VSU in 1984, in part because he wanted to further his research through his family's Virginia connection.
As Bingham learned, John was sent to one of Carter's 40 plantations along the James River, Hill Quarter Plantation in Lancaster County, and given a slave wife, Easter. They had four children: Gay, Jacob, Stephen and Tom, who all grew to have children as well.
Through Stephen, Bingham is a descendant of the slave blacksmith and evangelist, Gabriel, who was born in 1776 and was owned by the Prossers of Henrico County. At the age of 7 in 1783, Gabriel watched his father dragged away to his death, accused of treason for attempting to encourage slaves to join the British during the Revolution.
Inheriting his father's fighting spirit, Gabriel became a tradesman slave who, despite laws forbidding it, gained a level of literacy. He didn't bend to white arrogance and rejected the association of the slaveholder's name with his own. According to Bingham, once in Richmond some bystanders pointed to him as Prosser's Gabriel. He corrected them in no uncertain terms: "My name is Gabriel."
As a contract laborer, Gabriel also gained a proscribed freedom and access to some money. He associated with fellow tradesmen of all stripes. He learned of the slave revolt in Haiti and the displeasure of some whites about the Alien and Sedition Acts of President John Adams' administration. Talk of civil war in city taverns could have urged Gabriel to action.
His resolve to end slavery may have been further quickened after an altercation with a neighboring plantation owner over a stolen pig; in the fracas, Gabriel bit off part of the man's left ear. The assault was punishable by death. Gabriel used a legal loophole to save his life by reciting a section of Biblical scripture. Instead, he was punished with the branding of his left hand and a month's confinement.
He began organizing a revolt by disguising organization amid fish fries and religious gatherings. Gabriel's ambitious plan involved taking Gov. James Monroe as a hostage and demanding the freedom of Virginia's slaves. Quakers, Methodists, Frenchmen and poor whites would be spared violence to be visited on some slaveholder families.
On Aug. 30, 1800, a torrential rain forestalled the march. The delay unnerved a couple of participants who told authorities of an imminent revolt. Monroe called out the militia, and posses formed to hunt the alleged conspirators. Gabriel, found on a schooner bound for Norfolk, was hauled back to Richmond for trial and execution. He was viewed as an imposing, unbroken man who refused to confess anything except to Gov. Monroe. More than 20 people — including family members — were hanged at 15th and Broad streets and likely buried nearby. Gabriel died last, on Oct. 10. He left behind his wife, Nancy, pregnant with a son, Samuel Joshua. She, like many who were spared for sympathy with Gabriel, was sold off far from Richmond, to a plantation near Louisville, Ky., where Samuel Joshua was turned into a breeder slave.
The first freeborn descendant of Gabriel was Joshua Bingham, born 1871, a tenant farmer in Bennettsville, S.C., who owned a horse and buggy that he and wife Julia took for Friday visits into town.
As for Gabriel's resting place, Bingham is uncertain. Stories conflict. "Some say he was cut up by white doctors and his brain weighed against a white man's. Others say the whites didn't want him in Virginia soil. I don't think anybody really knows where he is."