From Armenian History to Black-American History: Elizabeth Cann Kambourian

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By Aram Arkun

Mirror-Spectator Staff

RICHMOND, Va. — Elizabeth Cann Kambourian was a student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, majoring in history when she decided to write her honors thesis on the first Republic of Armenia. Many years later she became an expert in an important American slave rebellion in Richmond. In both cases, curiosity about people and things around her stimulated her research.

Kambourian was 28 when she went to college, having already gotten married and formed a family. She was working in a jewelry store run by her husband’s family, the Kambourians, and would walk to classes from work. Kambourian explained that her husband’s family history was interesting. The Kambourians were a prosperous family in Erzerum. As a result of a quarrel there, one young son, Manuel, was sent abroad in the early 1880s, initially to France. He then came to New York and became a jeweler like his father. After some business disagreements, he immigrated to Richmond and started a rug business. He had three sons, two of whom took over the rug business — which still is flourishing today in the hands of a fourth generation Kambourian, and the youngest of whom went into the jewelry field.

One relative, Dikran Najarian, married to a Kambourian, was a Tashnag, or member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. He went back to the Ottoman Empire in the beginning of the 20th century and got arrested and was executed. His final writing from jail is preserved by the family.

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As Kambourian took an interest in the family’s history, one of her husband’s uncles gave her various family documents, including photographs, Ottoman travel papers and a work permit for the aforementioned Najarian.

Kambourian wrote her undergraduate thesis on the first Republic of Armenia but gave background dating back to 1870. Her professor was able to give her good guidance and she used contemporary French and English newspapers among her sources.

Ironically, as Kambourian pointed out, while in college “I skipped American history altogether, but ended up getting involved in it in the end.” It turned out that the house that she and her family bought in 1974 played a key role in this. The old lady who sold the house gave her a title search done in 1918, which traced the plot of land back to 1745, when it was part of a much larger tract. Eventually, in the late 1980s, out of curiosity Kambourian went to the Henrico County records and found a plan of a plantation, Quincy Plantation, which included her own plot.

She said, “I knew already that a slave rebellion had taken place in this neighborhood. I thought that surely my house would have had participants since it was adjacent to two other plantations where slaves participated. And I did find a slave, George Smith, who was involved. He was a conjurer. It was fascinating.”

The slave rebellion, called the Gabriel rebellion after its leader, a blacksmith, was planned for the summer of 1800. Kambourian said, “The rebels were well educated and belonged to lax owners — that is, they were allowed to roam about. They did not have it that bad [compared to other slaves]. They could, however, see during their trips for business into Richmond how deprived they really were. Death or liberty was their banner.” They had wide-ranging contacts with other slaves and hoped their act would spark a broader rebellion.

The rebellion failed, due to betrayal by fellow slaves, as well as torrential rains. Virginia’s governor was then James Monroe, the future fifth president of the United States. After he suppressed the rebellion by force, he attempted to cover it up, fearing it could cause political trouble. It was a presidential election year with another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, vying for the highest position in the American government. However, Monroe was unsuccessful and newspapers in the North did write about the event. The longterm consequences included the strengthening of restrictions on the rights and activities of slaves.

Kambourian’s research led her to locate the gallows where Gabriel was hung, along with his fellow conspirators. They were immediately buried nearby in a site which had been turned into a parking lot on Broad Street. This is the African-American or Negro Burial Ground.

Kambourian tried to get people to listen to the results of her research in the 1990s, but she found that nobody was interested until around 2000. She gave a key presentation then in the Black History Museum and Cultural

Center of Virginia in Richmond, and an organization called the Defenders for Freedom, Justice and Equality soon began to cite her discoveries. A struggle was waged to memorialize the burial ground, and it no longer is used as a parking site.

In 2002, Gabriel’s death was commemorated by a resolution of the City of Richmond, and in 2006 Gov. Tim Kaine informally pardoned Gabriel and his collaborators in recognition of his struggle to end slavery and promote equality for all people.

While Kambourian was reading in the State Library in the 1980s and 1990s, she noticed that African-Americans were always coming in to ask about how to start work on their family genealogies, and the librarians would tell them to look at the Freedmen’s Bureau records. She eventually decided to write a book making this raw information more accessible, and in 1997 published The Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia.This volume provides a list of former slaves and freedmen who received food and medical aid from the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau, with maps and whatever personal information was available in the records.

At present Kambourian is preparing a book on the Gabriel rebellion. She has found interesting personal motivations for Gabriel and a number of the chief conspirators which may have led them to rebel despite the relatively good circumstances of their lives as slaves. For example, Gabriel, a handsome young man, may have had his front teeth knocked out and have been humiliated and disfigured by his master, though they were of the same age and friends of sorts.

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