|North American slave revolts
Denmark Vesey (also Telemaque) (ca. 1767 – July 2, 1822) was a literate, skilled carpenter and leader among African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. He is notable as the accused and convicted ringleader of "the rising," a major potential slave revolt planned for the city in June 1822; he was executed. Likely born into slavery in St. Thomas, he served a master in Bermuda for some time before being brought to Charleston, where he gained his freedom.
Vesey won a lottery and purchased his freedom around the age of 32. He had a good business and a family, but was unable to buy his first wife Beck and their children out of slavery. Vesey became active in the Second Presbyterian Church; in 1818 he was among the founders of an independent AME Church in the city, which had the support of white clergy. It rapidly attracted 1,848 members, making this the second-largest AME congregation in the nation after Mother Bethel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1822 Vesey was alleged to be the ringleader of a planned slave revolt. Vesey and his followers were said to be planning to kill slaveholders in Charleston, liberate the slaves, and sail to the black republic of Haiti for refuge. By some accounts, it would have involved thousands of slaves in the city and others on plantations miles away. City officials had a militia arrest the plot's leaders and many suspected followers in June before the rising could begin. Not one white person was killed or injured.
Vesey and five slaves were among the first group of men rapidly judged guilty by the secret proceedings of a city-appointed Court and condemned to death; they were executed by hanging on July 2, 1822. Vesey was about age 55. In later proceedings, some 30 additional followers were executed. His son was also judged guilty of conspiracy and was deported from the United States, along with many others. The church was destroyed and its minister expelled from the city.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Freedom
- 3 Background
- 4 Conspiracy
- 5 Failed uprising
- 6 Court of Magistrates and Freeholders
- 7 Aftermath
- 8 Historical debate
- 9 Legacy and honors
- 10 Representation in other media
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Sources
Manuscript transcripts of testimony at the 1822 Court proceedings in Charleston, South Carolina and its Report after the events constitute the chief documentation about Denmark Vesey's life. The Court judged Vesey guilty of conspiracy in a slave rebellion and had him executed by hanging.
The court reported that he was born into slavery about 1767 in St. Thomas, at the time a colony of Denmark. He was called Telemaque; historian Douglas Egerton suggested that Vesey could have been of Coromantee (an Akan-speaking people) origin. Biographer David Robertson suggested that Telemaque may have been of Mande origin, but his evidence has not been generally accepted by historians.
Telemaque was purchased at about age 14 by Joseph Vesey, a Bermudian sea captain and slave merchant. After a time, Vesey sold the youth to a planter in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). When the youth was found to suffer epileptic fits, Vesey took him back and returned his purchase price to the former master. Biographer Egerton found no evidence of Vesey having epilepsy later in life. He suggests that Vesey may have faked the seizures in order to escape the particularly brutal conditions on Saint-Domingue.
Telemaque worked for Joseph Vesey as a personal assistant and interpreter in slave trading, including periods spent in Bermuda, and was known to be fluent in French and Spanish in addition to English. Following the American Revolution, the captain retired from the sea and slave trade, settling in Charleston, South Carolina. Colonists from Bermuda, including the first Governor (William Sayle), had settled here since 1669, and there were many ties. Numerous Bermudians, such as Thomas Tudor Tucker, had settled prior to American independence. Telemaque had learned to read and write by the time he and Vesey settled in Charleston.
Charleston was a continental hub connected to Bermuda's thriving merchant shipping trade. The trading center of the Lowcountry's rice and indigo plantations, the city had a majority-slave population and thriving port. In 1796, Captain Vesey wed Mary Clodner, a wealthy "free East Indian woman, and the couple used Telemaque as a domestic at Mary's plantation, "the Grove," just outside of Charleston on the Ashley River.
On November 9, 1799, Telemaque won $1500 in a city lottery. At the age of 32, he bought his freedom for $600 from Vesey. He took the surname Vesey and the given name of 'Denmark,' after the nation ruling his birthplace of St. Thomas. Denmark Vesey began working as an independent carpenter and built up his own business. By this time he had married Beck, an enslaved woman. Their children were born into slavery under the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, by which children of a slave mother took her status. Vesey worked to gain freedom for his family; he tried to buy his wife but her master would not sell her. This meant their future children would also be born into slavery.
Along with many other slaves, Vesey had belonged to the Second Presbyterian church, and chafed against its restrictions on black members. In 1818 he was among founders of a congregation on what was known as the "Bethel circuit" of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church). This had been organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1816 as the first independent black denomination in the United States. The AME Church in Charleston was supported by leading white clergy. In 1818 white authorities briefly ordered the church closed, for violating slave code rules that prohibited black congregations from holding worship services after sunset. The church attracted 1848 members, making it the second largest AME church in the nation. City officials always worried about slaves in groups; they closed the church again for a time in 1821, as the City Council warned that its classes were becoming a "school for slaves" (under the slave code, slaves were prohibited from being taught to read). Vesey was reported as a leader in the congregation, drawing from the Bible to project hope for freedom.
By 1708, the population of the colony of South Carolina was majority slave, reflecting the numerous African slaves imported to the state as laborers on the rice and indigo plantations. Exports of these commodity crops, and cotton from the offshore Sea Islands, produced the wealth enjoyed by South Carolina's planters. This elite class controlled the legislature for decades after the American Revolution. The state, the Lowcountry and city of Charleston had a majority of the population who were slaves of African descent. By the late 18th century, slaves were increasingly "country born," that is, native to the United States. They were generally considered more tractable than newly enslaved Africans. Connections of kinship and personal relations extended between slaves in the city of Charleston and those on plantations in the Lowcountry, just as those connections existed among the planter class, many of whom had residences (and domestic slaves) in both places.
From 1791 to 1803 the Haitian Revolution of slaves and free people of color on Saint-Domingue had embroiled the French colony in violence; blacks gained independence and created the republic of Haiti in 1804. Many whites and free people of color had fled to Charleston as refugees during the uprisings, and brought their slaves with them. In the city, the new slaves were referred to as "French Negroes". Their accounts of the revolts and its success spread rapidly among Charleston's slaves.
In the early 1800s, the state had voted to reopen its ports to importing slaves from Africa; this decision was highly controversial and opposed by many planters in the Lowcountry, who feared the disruptive influence of new Africans on their slaves. Planters in Upland areas were developing new plantations of short-staple cotton and needed workers, so the state approved the trade. The profitability of this type cotton had been made possible by the invention of the cotton gin. From 1804 to 1808, Charleston merchants imported some 75,000 slaves, more than were brought to South Carolina in the 75 years before the Revolution. Some of these slaves were sold to the Uplands and other areas, but many of the new Africans were held in Charleston and on nearby Lowcountry plantations.
Even after gaining his freedom, Vesey continued to identify and socialize with many slaves. He became increasingly set on helping his new friends break from the bonds of slavery. In 1819, Vesey became inspired by the congressional debates over the status of Missouri since slavery appeared to be under attack.
Vesey developed followers among the mostly enslaved blacks in the Second Presbyterian Church and then the independent AME African Church. Its congregation represented more than 10% of the blacks in the city. They resented the harassment of city officials. Economic conditions in the Charleston area became difficult since an economic decline affected the city. In the year of 1821, Vesey and a few other slaves began to conspire and plan a revolt. In order for the revolt to be successful, Vesey had to recruit others and strengthen his army. Because Denmark Vesey was a lay preacher, when he had recruited enough followers, he would review the plans of the revolts with the others at his home during the religious classes. Vesey inspired slaves by connecting their potential freedom to the biblical story of the delivery of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery.
In his 50s, Vesey was a well-established carpenter with his own business. He reportedly planned the insurrection to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822. This date was notable in association with the French Revolution, which had first abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue. News of the plan was said to be spread among thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and for tens of miles through plantations along the Carolina coast. (Both the city and county populations were majority black; Charleston in 1820 had a population of 14,127 blacks and 10,653 whites.) Within the black population was a growing upper class of free people of color or mulattos, some of whom were slaveholders. Vesey generally aligned with slaves.
Vesey held numerous secret meetings and eventually gained the support of both slaves and free blacks throughout the city and countryside who were willing to fight for his cause. He managed to organize thousands of slaves who pledged to participate in his conspiracy. By using intimate family ties between those in the countryside and the city, Vesey created an extensive network of supporters
His plan was to form first a coordinated attack from multiple sides on the Charleston Meeting Street Arsenal. Once they secured their weapons, the conspirators planned to commandeer ships from the harbor and sail to Haiti, possibly with Haitian help. Vesey and his followers also planned to kill white slaveholders throughout the city, as had been done in Haiti, and liberate the slaves. According to records of the French Consulate in Charleston, his group was reported to have numerous members who were "French Negroes," slaves brought from Saint-Domingue by refugee masters.
Due to the vast number of slaves who knew about the planned uprising, Vesey feared that word of the plot would get out. Vesey reportedly advanced the date of the insurrection to June 16. Beginning in May, two slaves opposed to Vesey's scheme, George Wilson and Joe LaRoche, gave the first specific testimony about a coming uprising to Charleston officials, saying a "rising" was planned for July 14. George Wilson was a mixed-race slave who was deeply loyal to his master. The testimonies of these two men confirmed an earlier report coming from another slave named Peter Prioleau. Though officials didn't believe the less specific testimony of Prioleau, they did believe Wilson and LaRoche due to their unimpeachable reputations with their masters. With their testimony, the city launched a search for conspirators.
Joe LaRoche had originally planned to support the rising and brought the slave Rolla Bennett to discuss plans with George Wilson, his close friend. Wilson had to decide whether to join the conspiracy described by Bennett or tell his master that there was a plot in the making. Wilson refused to join the conspiracy and urged both Laroche and Bennett to end their involvement in the plans. Wilson convinced LaRoche that they must tell his master to prevent the conspiracy from being acted out.
The Mayor James Hamilton was told, and he organized a citizens' militia, putting the city on alert. White militias and groups of armed men patrolled the streets daily for weeks until many suspects were arrested by the end of June, including 55-year-old Denmark Vesey. As suspects were arrested, they were held in the Charleston Workhouse until the newly appointed Court of Magistrates and Freeholders heard evidence against them. The Workhouse was also the place where punishment was applied to slaves for their masters, and likely where Plot suspects were abused or threatened with abuse or death before giving testimony to the Court. The suspects were allowed visits by ministers; Dr. Benjamin Palmer visited Vesey when he was sentenced to death, and Vesey told the minister that he would die for a "glorious cause".
Court of Magistrates and Freeholders
As leading suspects were rounded up by the militia ordered by Intendant/Mayor James Hamilton, the Charleston City Council voted to authorize a Court of Magistrates and Freeholders to evaluate suspects and determine crimes. Tensions in the city were at a height, and some residents had doubts about actions taken during the widespread fears and quick rush to judgment. Soon after the Court began its sessions, in secret and promising secrecy to all witnesses, Supreme Court Justice William Johnson published an article in the local paper recounting an incident of a feared insurrection of 1811. He noted that a slave was mistakenly executed in the case, hoping to suggest caution in the Vesey affair. He was well respected, having been appointed as Justice by President Thomas Jefferson in 1804. But his article appeared to produce a defensive reaction, with white residents defending the Court and the militancy of city forces.
From June 17, the day after the purported insurrection was to begin, to June 28, the day after the court adjourned, officials arrested 31 suspects, in greater number as the month went on. The Court took secret testimony about suspects in custody and accepted evidence against men not yet charged. Historians acknowledge that some witnesses testified under threat of death or torture, but Robertson believes that their affirming accounts appeared to provide details of a plan for rebellion.
Newspapers were nearly silent while the Court conducted its proceedings. While bickering with Johnson, the Court first published its judgment of guilt of Denmark Vesey and five black slaves, and announced sentencing them to death. The six men were executed by hanging on July 2; none of the six had confessed and each proclaimed his innocence to the end. Their deaths quieted some of the city residents' fears, and the tumult in Charleston about the planned revolt began to die down. Officials made no arrests in the next three days, as if wrapping up their business.
Concerns about proceedings
Learning that the proceedings were conducted in secret, with defendants unable to confront their accusers or hear testimony against them, Governor Thomas Bennett, Jr. had concerns about the legality of the Court, as did his brother-in-law Justice Johnson. Bennett had served almost continuously in the state legislature since 1804, including four years as Speaker of the House. He did not take any action at first, because four of his household slaves were among those accused in the first group with Vesey, and three of these were executed with the leader on July 2.
Bennett consulted in writing with Robert Y. Hayne, Attorney General for the state, expressing his concerns about the conduct of the Court and the inability of defendants to confront accusers, yet be subject to execution. Hayne responded that slaves were not protected by the rights available to freemen of habeas corpus and the Magna Carta, under the state's constitution.
Further arrest and convictions
On July 1, an editorial in the Courier defended the work of the Court. After that, in July the cycle of arrests and judgments sped up, and the suspect pool was greatly expanded. As noted by historian Michael P. Johnson, most blacks were arrested and charged after the first group of hangings on July 2; this was after the actions of the Court had been criticized by both Justice William Johnson and Governor Bennett. The Court recorded that they divided the suspects into groups: those who "exhibited energy and activity"; if convicted, these were executed. Other men who seemed simply to "yield their acquiescence" to participating were deported. Over the course of five weeks, the Court ultimately ordered the arrest of 131 black men, charging them with conspiracy.
In July the pace of arrests and charges more than doubled, as if to prove there had been a large insurrection that needed controlling. But, the court "found it difficult to get conclusive evidence." It noted in its report covering the second round of court proceedings, that three men sentenced to death implicated "scores of others" when they were promised leniency in punishment.
In total, the courts convicted 67 men of conspiracy and hanged 35, including Vesey, in July 1822. A total of 31 men were transported, 27 reviewed and acquitted, and 38 questioned and released.
The remainder of Vesey's family was also affected by the crisis and Court proceedings. His enslaved son Sandy Vesey was arrested, judged to have been part of the conspiracy, and included among those deported from the country, probably to Cuba. Vesey's third wife, Susan, later emigrated to Liberia, which the American Colonization Society had established as a colony for freed American slaves. Another son, Robert Vesey, survived past the end of the American Civil War to be emancipated. He helped rebuild Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865, and also attended the transfer of power when US officials took control again at Fort Sumter.
On October 7, 1822, Judge Elihu Bay convicted four white men for a misdemeanor in inciting slaves to insurrection during the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy. These four white men were William Allen, John Igneshias, Andrew S. Rhodes, and Jacob Danders; they were sentenced to varied fines and reasonably short jail time. Historians have found no evidence that any of these men was a known abolitionist; they do not seem to have had contact with each other or any of the plotters of the rebellion. William Allen received twelve months in prison and a $1,000 fine, which was the harshest punishment of the four. When tried in court, Allen admitted to trying to help the slave conspiracy, but said that he did so because he was promised a large sum of money for his services. Reports from the judge show that the court believed that Allen was motivated by greed rather than any sympathy for the slaves.
The other white conspirators' punishments were far more lenient than that of William Allen. John Igneshias was given a one hundred dollar fine and three months in prison, as was Jacob Danders. Igneshias was found guilty of inciting slaves to insurrection, but Danders was charged simply for saying that he "disliked everything in Charleston, but the Negroes and the sailors." Danders had said this publicly after the plot had been revealed; city officials thought his comment suspicious. Danders was found guilty for showing sympathy to the slaves who had been caught trying to support the conspiracy. The final white defendant, Andrew S. Rhodes, received a sentence of six months and a five hundred dollar fine although there was less evidence against him than any of the other whites.
White residents of Charleston feared there could be more whites who wanted to help blacks fight against slavery. They were already concerned about the growing abolitionist movement in the North, which spread its message through the mails and via antislavery mariners, both white and black, who came ashore in the city. Judge Bay sentenced the four white men as a warning to any other whites who might think of supporting slave rebels. He also was pushing state lawmakers to strengthen laws against both mariners and free blacks in South Carolina in general, and anyone supporting slave rebellions in particular. Judge Bay thought these four white men were spared from hanging only because of a "statutory oversight." The convictions of these men enabled the white men of the pro-slavery establishment to continue to believe that their slaves would not stage rebellions without the manipulation of "alien agitators or local free people of color."
In August both Governor Bennett and Mayor Hamilton published accounts of the insurrection and Court proceedings; Bennett downplayed the danger posed by the alleged crisis and argued that the Court's executions and lack of due process damaged the state's reputation. But Hamilton captured the public with his 46-page account, which became the "received version" of a narrowly avoided bloodbath and citizens saved by the city's and Court's heroic actions. Hamilton attributed the insurrection to the influence of black Christianity and the AME African Church, an increase in slave literacy, and misguided paternalism by masters toward slaves. In October the Court issued its Report, shaped by Hamilton. Lacy K. Ford notes that:
the most important fact about the Report was (and remains) that it tells the story that Hamilton and the Court wanted told. It shaped the public perception of events, and it was certainly intended to do just that. As such, it makes important points about the Vesey Court’s agenda, regardless of the larger historical truth of the document’s claims about the alleged insurrection and accused insurrectionists.
Ford noted that Hamilton and the Court left a major gap in their conclusions about the reasons for the slave revolt. The importation of thousands of African slaves to the city and region by the early 1800s was completely missing as a factor, although fears of slave revolt had been one of the major reasons expressed for opposition to the imports. He suggests this factor was omitted because that political battle was over; instead, Hamilton identified reasons for the rising that could be prevented or controlled by legislation which he proposed.
Governor Bennett's criticism continued, and he made a separate report to the legislature in the fall of 1822 (he was in his last year in office). He accused the Charleston City Council of usurping its authority by setting up the Court, which he said violated law by holding secret proceedings, with no protections for the defendants. The court took testimony under "pledges of inviolable secrecy" and "convicted [the accused] and "sentenced [them] to death without their seeing the persons, or hearing the voices of those, who testified to their guilt." Open sessions could have allowed the potential for the court to distinguish among varying accounts.
Believing that "black religion" contributed to the uprising, and knowing that several AME Church officials had participated in the plot for insurrection, Charleston officials ordered the large congregation to be dispersed and the building destroyed. Rev. Morris Brown of the church was forced out of the state; he later became a bishop of the national AME Church. No independent black church was established in the city again until after the Civil War, but many black worshippers met secretly. The congregations of Emanuel AME Church and the Morris Brown AME Church carry on the legacy of the first AME Church in Charleston.
In 1820 the state legislature had already restricted manumissions by requiring that any act of manumission (for an individual only) had to be approved by both houses of the legislature. This made it almost impossible for slaves to gain freedom, even in cases where an individual or family member could pay a purchase price. After the Vesey Plot, the legislature further restricted the movement of free blacks and free people of color; if one left the state for any reason, that person could not return. In addition, it required each free black to have documented white "guardians" to vouch for their character.
The legislature also passed the Seaman's Act of 1822, requiring free black sailors on ships that docked in Charleston to be imprisoned in the city jail for the period that their ships were in port. This was to prevent them from interaction with and influencing slaves in the city. This act was ruled unconstitutional in Federal court, as it violated international treaties between the US and Britain. The state's right to imprison free black sailors became one of the issues in the confrontation between South Carolina and the Federal government over states' rights.
Following passage of the Seaman's Act, the white minority of Charleston organized the South Carolina Association, essentially to take over enforcement of control of slaves and free blacks in the city. As part of this, 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" or militia. The South Carolina State Arsenal, which became known as the Citadel, was completed in 1829; by then white fears of insurrection had subsided for a time. Rather than establish the municipal guard authorized in the act, the State and city entered into an agreement with the US War Department to garrison the Citadel, from those soldiers stationed at Fort Moultrie.
The Court published its report in 1822 as An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes ... This was the first full account, as newspaper coverage had been very restricted during the secret proceedings. In particular, the Court collected all the information available on Vesey in the last two weeks of his life and eight weeks following his hanging. Their Report has been the basis of historians' interpretations of Vesey's life and the rebellion. Since the mid-20th century, most historians have evaluated the conspiracy in terms of black resistance to slavery, with some focusing on the plot, others on the character of Vesey and his senior leaders, and others on the black unity displayed. Despite the threats of whites, few blacks confessed and few provided testimony against the leaders or each other. Morgan notes that by keeping silent, these slaves resisted the whites and were the true heroes of the crisis.
In 1964, historian Richard Wade examined the report in comparison to manuscript transcripts of the court proceedings, of which two versions exist. Based on numerous discrepancies he found and the lack of material evidence at the time of the "trials," he suggested that the Vesey Conspiracy was mostly "angry talk," and that the plot was not well founded for action. He noted how little evidence was found for such a plot: no arms caches were discovered, no firm date appeared to have been set, and no well-organized underground apparatus was found, but both blacks and whites widely believed there was a well-developed insurrection in the works. Claiming, erroneously, that both Justice William Johnson and his brother-in-law Governor Thomas Bennett Jr. had strong doubts about the existence of a conspiracy, Wade concluded that among black and white Charleston residents, there were "strong grievances on one side and deep fears on the other," creating a basis for belief in a broad rebellion. Wade's conclusion that the conspiracy was not well formed, was criticized later by William Freehling and other historians, particularly as Wade was found to have overlooked some material.
In 2001, Michael P. Johnson criticized three histories of Vesey and the conspiracy published in 1999, based on his study of the primary documents. He suggested that historians had over-interpreted the available evidence, which was gathered at the end of Vesey's life from the testimony of witnesses under great pressure in court. He said historians too wholeheartedly accepted such witness testimony as fact, and notes specific "interpretive improvisations." For instance, historians have described Vesey's physical appearance, which was not documented at all in the court record, although free black carpenter Thomas Brown, who on occasion worked with Vesey, described him as a "large, stout man."
In a response to Johnson's work, Philip D. Morgan notes that in the 19th century, Vesey was once described as a mulatto or free person of color by William Gilmore Simms. Trial records, however, identified him as a free black man. Some historians from 1849 to the 1990s described him as a mulatto, but lacking documentation, since the later 20th century, historians have described him as black. Although free black carpenter Thomas Brown also described Vesey as dark-skinned, Morgan suggests this transformation in ancestry represents modern sensibilities more than any evidence.
Johnson found that the two versions of the manuscript transcripts disagreed with each other, and contained material not found in the official report of the court. He concluded that the report was an attempt by the Court to suggest that formal trials had been held, when the proceedings did not follow accepted procedures for trials and due process. Their proceedings had been held in secret and defendants could not confront their accusers. After Vesey and the first five conspirators were executed, the Court had another 82 suspects arrested in July, more than twice as many as had been arrested in June. Johnson suggested that, after public criticism, the Court was motivated to prove there was a conspiracy.
Morgan notes that two prominent men indicated concerns about the Court. In addition, he notes that Bertram Wyatt-Brown in his Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (p. 402) said that prosecutions of slave revolts were typically so arbitrary that they should be considered a "communal rite" and "celebration of white solidarity", "a religious more than a normal criminal process." Morgan thinks that historians have too often ignored that warning and supports Johnson's close examination of the variations among the Vesey Court records.
Wade and Johnson suggest that Mayor James Hamilton, Jr. of Charleston may have exaggerated rumors of the conspiracy to use as a "political wedge issue" against moderate Governor Thomas Bennett Jr. in their own rivalry and efforts to attract white political support. Hamilton knew that four of Bennett's household slaves had been arrested as suspects; three were executed on July 2 together with Vesey. Mayor Hamilton supported a militant approach to controlling slaves and believed that the paternalistic approach of improving treatment of slaves, as promoted by moderate slaveholders such as Bennett, was a mistake. He used the crisis to appeal to the legislature for laws which he had already supported, that would authorize restrictions of slaves and free blacks.
Hamilton's article and the Court Report examine a variety of reasons for the planned revolt. Extremely dependent on slavery, many Charleston residents had been alarmed about the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that restricted slavery from expansion to the western territories, feeling it threatened the future of slavery. Some suggested that slaves had learned about the compromise and thought they were to be emancipated. Whites blamed the AME Church, they blamed rising slave literacy, and the African slaves brought from Haiti during its Revolution. In 1822, beleaguered whites in Charleston uniformly believed that blacks had planned a large insurrection; such a scenario represented their worst fears.
Wade noted the lack of material evidence: no arms caches or documents related to the rebellion. Johnson's article provoked considerable controversy among historians. The William and Mary Quarterly invited contributions to a "Forum" on the issue, which was published in January 2002. Egerton noted that free black carpenter Thomas Brown and other blacks familiar with Vesey or the Reverend Morris Brown, the leader of the AME Church, continued to speak or write about Vesey's plot in later years, supporting conclusions that it did exist. In 2004, historian Robert Tinkler, a biographer of Mayor Hamilton, reported that he found no evidence to support Johnson's theory that Hamilton conjured the plot for political gain. Hamilton ruthlessly pursued the prosecution, Tinkler concluded, because he "believed there was indeed a Vesey plot." Ford noted that Hamilton presented those aspects of and reasons for the insurrection that enabled him to gain controls on slavery which he had wanted before the crisis.
In a 2011 article, James O'Neil Spady said that by Johnson's own criteria, the statements of witnesses George Wilson and Joe LaRoche ought to be considered credible and as evidence of a developed plot for the rising. Neither slave was coerced nor imprisoned when he testified. Each volunteered his testimony early in the investigation, and LaRoche risked making statements that the court could have construed as self-incriminating. Spady concluded that a group had in fact been about to launch the "rising" (as they called it) when their plans were revealed. Perhaps it was of a smaller scale than in some accounts, but he believed men were ready to take action.
In 2012 Lacy K. Ford gave the keynote address to the South Carolina Historical Association; his subject was interpretation of the Vesey Plot. He said, "the balance of the evidence clearly points to the exaggeration of the plot and the misappropriation of its lessons by Hamilton, the Court, and their allies for their own political advantage." Charleston officials had a crisis in which not one white person had been killed or injured. Ford contrasted their actions to the approach of Virginia officials after the 1831 Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion, in which slaves killed tens of whites. Charleston officials said there was a large, complex and sophisticated conspiracy led by the "brilliant" Vesey; but Virginia officials downplayed Turner's revolt, stressing that he and his few followers acted alone. Ford concludes,
Enlarging the threat posed by Vesey allowed the Lowcountry elite to disband the thriving AME church in Charleston and launch a full-fledged, if ultimately unsuccessful, counter-attack against the paternalist insurgency. And the local elite’s interpretation of the Vesey scare prepared the state for a politics centered on the defense of slavery, a politics that reinforced tendencies toward consensus latent in the Palmetto state’s body politic, tendencies easily mobilized for radicalism by perceived threats against slavery.
Legacy and honors
- The Denmark Vesey House in Charleston, although almost certainly not the actual home of Vesey, was designated National Historic Landmark in 1976 by the Department of Interior.
- In 1976 the city of Charleston commissioned a portrait of Vesey. It hung in the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, but was controversial.
- From the 1990s, African-American activists in Charleston proposed erecting a memorial to Denmark Vesey, to honor his effort to overturn slavery in the city. The proposal was controversial, as some people did not want to memorialize a man they considered a terrorist; others believed a memorial would not only acknowledge his leadership but would express the slaves' desire for freedom. In 2014, a statue representing Vesey as a carpenter, holding a Bible, was erected in Hampton Park, at some distance from the main tourist areas.
Representation in other media
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- Martin Delany's serialized novel, Blake; or the Huts of America (1859-1861), referred to Vesey and Nat Turner, as well as having a protagonist who plans a large-scale slave insurrection.
- Dorothy Heyward's drama, Set My People Free (1948), refers to Vesey's life.
- 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.
- Vesey was the subject of the 1982 made-for-television drama, Denmark Vesey's Revolt, in which he was played by actor Yaphet Kotto.
- Vesey was featured as a character in the TV movie Brother Future (1991).
- Several PBS documentaries have included material on Denmark Vesey, particularly Africans in America and This Far By Faith.
- Denmark Vesey is the name and basis for a character in Orson Scott Card's The Tales of Alvin Maker, an alternate history series of books set in the United States, which have been published from 1987 to 2014.
- John Oliver Killens's novella, Great Gittin' Up Morning is based on Vesey's conspiracy.
- Sue Monk Kidd's 2014 novel, The Invention of Wings, includes Denmark Vesey as a character; the slave revolt and the reaction to it is a major plot point. The novel perpetuates the myths that Vesey practiced polygamy, and that he was hanged alone from a large tree in Charleston.
- After Denmark, a play by David Robson, is a 21st-century take on the historical Denmark Vesey. The play was first produced at the 2008 Great Plains Theatre Conference.
- Vesey was the subject of a 1939 opera named for him by novelist and composer Paul Bowles.
- 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.
- He is mentioned in underground hip hop artist Apani B. Fly Emcee's song, "Time Zone," featuring Talib Kweli. Kweli refers to both Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey by saying "Not separate or equal, so fuck Ferguson, and Plessy Folks of Slaves, bringin' it like Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey....."
- In 2014, North Carolina native band Corrosion of Conformity included a song, "Kill Denmark Vesey," on their album "IX". Citing other well-known historical figures such as Nat Turner and John Brown in the lyrics, the song refers to the abolition of slavery in the South and the Charleston events of 1822.
- O’Neil Spady, James (April 2011). "Power and Confession: On the Credibility of the Earliest Reports of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy" (PDF). William and Mary Quarterly. 68 (2): 287–304. doi:10.5309/willmaryquar.68.2.0287. Retrieved October 25, 2015.
- Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey, 2nd ed. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, pp. 1–4, 2004.
- which after the Civil War became known as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This first independent black denomination in the US was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
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|Library resources about
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- 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 at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina.
- 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 at the Library of Congress, American Memory.
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