Growing up and hearing about the horrors of slavery I often wondered why the slaves allowed themselves to be held in such horrible conditions. We would often speak about what we would do if we were subjected to such conditions. It is easy to look back and claim that we wouldn’t put up with being treated like property when we have no real idea or appreciation of what exactly would be at stake. The interesting thing is that even with their lives on the line many slaves did refuse to accept the conditions that they were told were the norm. Unfortunately, not all of the attempts to gain their freedom were successful. This post is about an attempted rebellion led by a man named Denmark Vesey.
Denmark Vesey is believed to have been born into slavery in St. Thomas and was known as Telemaque. When he was 14 he was sold to a sea captain named Joseph Vesey who later sold him to a planter in what is today Haiti. Joseph Vesey later took him back after he started experiencing seizures. It is likely that these seizures were manufactured by Telemaque in order to escape the harsh conditions he was subjected to under the planter. Later in life Denmark bought his freedom after winning a lottery. He married a slave woman and had children with her. He tried to buy her from her master but he refused to sell her.
Denmark became involved in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Because of the numbers of congregants the church was shut down on several occasions. He used the church to spread messages of hope from the bible to his congregation. He recruited members of his church in developing plans to stage an uprising. One of the Biblical accounts he used as inspiration was the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian oppression. He would review plans for the revolt during bible classes with his recruits. The revolt was initially planned to take place on July 14, 1822 which was Bastille Day.
He was, through numerous secret meetings and utilizing intimate family connections able to gain an extensive network of supporters which included both slaves and free blacks. He had developed a strategy that would begin with attacking the Charleston meeting street arsenal. After securing weapons they would commandeer ships and kill the slaveholders while liberating slaves throughout the city. They planned to sail to Haiti with the help of Haitians.
Vesey was aware that the number of people with knowledge of the plan provided the risk that someone would reveal the plot to slaveholders so he moved up the date of the revolt to June 16. Vesey’s concerns were legitimate as in May two slaves named George Wilson and Joe LaRoche gave specific testimony about a coming uprising on July 14. Based on this information white militias were formed and city patrols were organized. During this time many conspirators were arrested including Denmark Vesey himself. 65 men were convicted of conspiracy and 35 were hanged including Vesey. One of Vesey’s sons was arrested, convicted and deported. His wife emigrated to Liberia and his other son was emancipated after the end of the Civil War.
In the 1990’s black activists tried to erect a memorial to Denmark Vesey for attempting to overturn slavery but resistance was met by people who considered Denmark Vesey a terrorist.