On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey, a free African-American living in Charleston, South Carolina, was executed for his role in leading a purported slave rebellion. This event marked a significant increase in southern surveillance and oppression of free blacks and demonstrates the very real fear the South had of its slave labor force rising en masse and murdering whites.
Vesey was born around 1767, though no one is sure whether in Africa or St. Thomas. As a youth, he was shipped to Haiti briefly and then came to South Carolina, where he worked as a domestic slave for a man named Joseph Vesey. He won a lottery in 1799, using the money to pay for his own freedom. However, he could not buy his wife or children, forcing him to stay in Charleston. He then worked as a carpenter and became a minister, cofounding a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 1817.
The early 19th century was a nervous time for the Southern planter elite. In the aftermath of the successful Haitian rebellion of the 1790s and 1800s, the American slave power was constantly vigilant about their own slaves rising up and killing them all. A successful slave rebellion would have been nearly impossible for slaves in the United States because there weren’t enough of them and they didn’t have the ecological advantages of the Haitians (the Haitian Rebellion primarily succeeded in the end because the French troops kept dying of malaria and other tropical diseases). That certainly didn’t stop southerners from worrying about it though.
Denmark Vesey had of course heard about the slave rebellion in Haiti. There’s no doubt he would have liked to see a similar action in the United States, but then that’s hardly remarkable. We do know that Vesey was furious at South Carolina closing the AME church, which the state had done repeatedly over the past five years, fearing the proceedings going on inside. In 1818, Charleston police arrested 140 people worshipping inside the church. Vesey’s preaching seems to have grown more strident, with a great deal of emphasis on Exodus and the Egyptian enslavement of the Israelites (always a small problem for oh so good Christian slaveowners justifying their slave labor system through the Bible). Vesey’s religious message was one of violent redemption. He rejected the idea of the flight to the desert to freedom. Rather, he thought the slaveowners should pay with their lives.
This was a quite syncretic religion. With the legal importation of Africans only ended fourteen years earlier, and with a small amount of illegal importation bringing additional Africans to the U.S., there was a lot of African-born people involved in Vesey’s group. One was a priest named Gullah Jack. Born in modern-day Angola, after the 1818 church closing he brought a mystic side to Vesey’s freedom movement and did most of the recruiting for the church and planned rebellion.
There has been some debate over whether this plot was real. It probably was a plan at least. The story goes that Vesey planned a widespread revolt to begin on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. They would rise up, execute the slave owners, seize the city arsenal, briefly take the city of Charleston, then all get on boats and flee to Haiti to escape punishment. Not surprisingly, two slaves leaked the plans to their owners. On June 22, Vesey was arrested. A total of 130 additional African-Americans were arrested. 67 were convicted and 35 hanged, including Vesey on July 2, 1822. Vesey and his followers were tortured to get all the names of everyone involved, but supposedly they never gave them up. Most of the rest, including Vesey’s son, were sold to the death trap plantations of the Caribbean.
In the aftermath of the executions, South Carolina became even more harsh in dealing with its slave labor force. The first thing the city of Charleston did was burn the AME church. The Vesey plot tapped into a long-running fear of freed slaves and led to new laws against owners freeing their slaves. Free people of color faced new restrictions from traveling unless a white person would vouch for their character. Another law mandated the imprisonment of black sailors on ships docked in Charleston. Given the high number of black sailors in northern ports this was a real issue and in fact the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, a point used by the growing Southern nationalism of the South Carolina fireeaters. The state destroyed the AME church building. South Carolina also built what became The Citadel in order to prepare for future slave rebellions.
Vesey became a hero for the free black population of the North on how to stand up and fight against oppression. Among the people who saw Vesey as a model or inspiration were Frederick Douglass, David Walker, and John Brown, who would indeed make slaveowners pay for their sins with blood.
If you are interested in primary sources around this issue, Lois Walker and Susan Silverman put together a primary source reader entitled A Documentary History of Gullah Jack Pritchard and the Denmark Vesey Slave Insurrection of 1822, published in 2000. The book attempts to center the revolt more around Gullah Jack and less around Vesey, which may well be accurate but the existing documentation is so sparse that, once again, it’s really hard to know.
This is the 67th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.