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Denmark Vesey, originally Telemaque, (1767 – July 2, 1822) was an African-American man who was most famous for planning a slave rebellion in the United States in 1822. He was enslaved in South Carolina. After purchasing his freedom, he planned an extensive slave rebellion. Word of the plans was leaked, and authorities arrested the plot's leaders at Charleston, South Carolina, before the uprising could begin. Vesey and others were convicted and executed.
Many antislavery activists came to regard Vesey as a hero. During the American Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass used Vesey's name as a battle cry[clarification needed] to rally African-American regiments, especially the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.
No records exist of Denmark Vesey's origins, although scholars have speculated that he may have been born in St. Thomas or in Africa. One writer, novelist David Robertson, suggested that Denmark may have been of Mande origin, but this evidence has not been accepted by historians. Historian Douglas Egerton suggested that Vesey could be of Coromantee (an Akan-speaking people) origin, based on a remembrance by a free black carpenter who knew Vesey toward the end of his life.
Denmark labored briefly in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), before the Bermudian sea captain Joseph Vesey who had sold him was forced to take him back and re-imburse the plantation owner due to his epileptic fits. He then worked as a personal assistant to Joseph Vesey, including periods spent in Bermuda, until the captain retired from the sea and settled in Charleston, South Carolina, which was a continental hub of Bermuda's thriving merchant shipping carrying trade. On November 9, 1799, Denmark Vesey won $1500 in a city lottery. He bought his own freedom and began working as a carpenter. Although a Presbyterian as late as April 1816, Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. The church was temporarily shut down by white authorities in 1818 and again in 1820.
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Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to execute their enslavers and temporarily liberate the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation. Two slaves opposed to Vesey's scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.
Sandy Vesey, one of Denmark's sons, was transported, probably to Cuba. Vesey's last wife Susan later emigrated to Liberia. Another son, Robert Vesey, survived to rebuild Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865.
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The hysteria and fear fomented amongst the minority white population fanned the flames of the fear of future slave insurrection. In response to the Vesey conspiracy, the South Carolina Association was formed to provide more effective control of the black population. The African Church building was ordered destroyed by city authorities.
Among the limits imposed on South Carolinians in the wake of the failed conspiracy were the restricting of owner’s right of manumission of slaves, restrictions on the movement of free persons of color in and out of the state and requiring them to secure a white guardian who could vouch for their character. An act also compelled the forced imprisonment of black sailors visiting Charleston. This later act was ruled unconstitutional in Federal Court and played a small part in the confrontation between South Carolina and the Federal Government over State Rights.
In late 1822, the City petitioned the General Assembly "to establish a competent force to act as a municipal guard for the protection of the City of Charleston and its vicinity." The General Assembly agreed and appropriated funds to erect "suitable buildings for an Arsenal, for the deposit of the arms of the State, and a Guard House, and for the use of the municipal guard."
The buildings that would become known as the Citadel were ready for occupation in 1829, but by then the fears of insurrection had subsided and rather than establish the municipal guard authorized in the act, the State and city entered into an agreement with the War Department for a detail of United States troops then stationed at Fort Moultrie to garrison the Citadel.
Recent scholarship in 2001 by historian Michael Johnson gave a new twist to historian Richard Wade's 1964 theory that the Vesey Conspiracy was nothing more than "angry talk." According to Johnson, Mayor James Hamilton Jr. concocted a false conspiracy to use as a "political wedge issue" against Governor Thomas Bennett Jr., who owned four of the accused slaves. Somewhat in reaction to the Missouri Compromise, which restricted slavery in the western territories, Mayor Hamilton came to support a militant approach to protecting slavery. He called for draconian measures, while the governor clung to a paternalistic view. In 1822, white Carolinians uniformly believed in the existence of a conspiracy. Governor Bennett, while believing that the plot was not as widespread as Hamilton thought, nonetheless called Vesey's plan "a ferocious, diabolical design."
Johnson also asserted that aside from questionable court records, no other material evidence existed of Vesey's plans to lead the revolt. Specialists, however, observe that a number of blacks familiar with Vesey or the Reverend Morris Brown, especially free black carpenter Thomas Brown, spoke or wrote about the plot in later years.
In 2004, historian Robert Tinkler, a biographer of Mayor Hamilton, reported that he uncovered no documentation to support Johnson's theory. James Hamilton, he concluded, "believed there was indeed a Vesey plot."
In the April 2011 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, historian James O'Neil Spady showed that under Johnson's own criteria, the statements of some of the earliest witnesses, George Wilson and Joe LaRoache, ought to be considered credible. Neither man was coerced nor imprisoned. Both volunteered their testimony, and LaRoache even risked statements that the court could have construed as self-incriminating. Spady concluded that a real, but perhaps smaller, conspiracy had been about to launch when the plans were revealed.
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Martin Delany's 19th-century novel Blake referred to Vesey, as did Dorothy Heyward's drama Set My People Free. Vesey was the subject of a 1939 opera named after him by novelist and composer Paul Bowles.
Vesey was the subject of the 1980s made-for-television drama Denmark Vesey's Revolt, in which he was played by actor Yaphet Kotto. Vesey's character also appeared in the 1991 TV movie Brother Future. Several PBS documentaries have included material on Denmark Vesey, particularly Africans in America and This Far By Faith. A CBS Radio Workshop drama written by Richard Durham, Sweet Cherries in Charleston, broadcast August 25, 1957, tells the story of the aborted 1822 rebellion.
Denmark Vesey is the name and basis for a character created by Orson Scott Card in The Tales of Alvin Maker, a series of books which detail an alternate history of America. Vesey's conspiracy also formed the basis of John Oliver Killens's brief novella, Great Gittin' Up Morning.
After Denmark, a play by David Robson, is a twenty-first century take on the historical Denmark Vesey. The play first appeared at the 2008 Great Plains Theatre Conference. A workshop production by Yellow Taxi Productions is planned for the fall of 2008.
Joe McPhee's composition Message from Denmark, featured on the 1971 album Joe McPhee & Survival Unit II at WBAI's Free Music Store, is dedicated to Denmark Vesey.
Denmark Vesey has also been mentioned in underground hip hop artist Apani B. Fly Emcee's song "Time Zone" featuring Talib Kweli. In the song, hip hop artist Talib Kweli makes a reference to both Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey who were both slaves during the 18th century, by saying "Not separate or equal, so fuck Ferguson and Plessy Folks of Slaves, bringin' it like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey....."
- Rucker (2006), p. 162
- Egerton (2004), p. 3-4
- Bernews: Row Over Statue to Bermudian’s Slave, 3 January, 2011
- The historian Robert Gross, "Introduction, Denmark Vesey and his Co-Conspirators,” William and Mary Quarterly, LVIII, No. 4. (October 2001), mistakenly asserted: "Doubts were raised at the time."
- Spady, "Power and Confession: On the Credibility of the Earliest Reports of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. ser., 68 (April 2011), 287-304.
- "Series: Columbia Workshop; Show: Sweet Cherries in Charleston"
|Library resources about
- Bennett, Thomas Jr. Circular Letter, dated August 10, 1822, n.p. reprinted in National Intelligencer, August 24, 1822; and in Nile’s Weekly Register, September 7, 1822.
- Digital Library on American Slavery
- Hamilton, James. An Account of the Late Insurrection Among A Portion of the Blacks of this City. Charleston: A. E. Miller, 1822. Also published as Negro Plot: An Account of the Late Insurrection Among A Portion of the Blacks of Charleston, South Carolina. Joseph Ingraham, Boston, 1822. Available online.
- Kennedy, Lionel; Parker, Thomas. An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes Charged with an Attempt to Raise an Insurrection in the State of South Carolina, Preceded by an Introduction and Narrative and in an Appendix, a Report of the Trials of Four White Persons, on Indictments for Attempting to incite the Slaves to Insurrection. Prepared and published at the request of the Court. Charleston, 1822. Available online.
- Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey, 2nd ed. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.
- Freehling, William W. “Denmark Vesey’s Peculiar Reality,” in Robert Abzug and Stephen Maizlish. New Perspectives in Race and Slavery: Essays in Honor of Kenneth Stampp. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1986.
- Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Denmark Vesey,” Atlantic Monthly, VII, (June 1861), 728-744. Available Online.
- Johnson, Michael P. “Denmark Vesey and his Co-Conspirators,” William and Mary Quarterly, LVIII, No. 4. (October 2001), 915-976.
- Johnson, Michael P., et al. Responses in “Forum”, William and Mary Quarterly, LViV, No. 1, (January 2002).
- Johnson, Michael P., and James L. Roark. "Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South" W.W. Norton & Co. 1984, ISBN 0-393-30314-4
- Lofton, John. Insurrection in South Carolina: The Turbulent World of Denmark Vesey. Yellow Springs, Ohio: The Antioch Press, 1964. Reissued as Denmark Vesey’s Revolt, Kent State University Press, 1983.
- Paquette, Robert L. "From Rebellion to Revisionism: The Continuing Debate About the Denmark Vesey Affair," Journal of the Historical Society, IV (Fall 2004), 291-334.
- Powers, Bernard E., Jr. "Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822-1882", University of Arkansas Press, 1994, ISBN 1-55728-364-8
- Rucker, Walter G., The river flows on: Black resistance, culture, and identity formation in early America, LSU Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8071-3109-1
- Spady, James O'Neil, "Power and Confession: On the Credibility of the Earliest Reports of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd. ser., 68 (April 2011), 287-304.
- Tinkler, Robert, James Hamilton of South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004.
- van Daacke, Kirt. Denmark Vesey. Teachinghistory.org. Accessed 2 June 2011.
- Wade, Richard C. “The Vesey Plot: A Reconsideration.” Journal of Southern History, XXX (May 1964), l43-161.
- Executions in the U.S. 1608-1987: The Espy File (by state)