Denmark Vesey

Denmark Vesey, known as Telemaque while enslaved,[page needed] (1767 – July 2, 1822) was a free black and former slave in Charleston, South Carolina who is noted for his plan for "the rising," a major slave revolt in 1822; by some accounts, it would have involved thousands of slaves in the city and others on plantations miles away. A skilled carpenter, Vesey had won a lottery and purchased his freedom at age 32 in 1799. He had a good business and a family, but was not able to buy his wife and children out of slavery. Vesey became active in the Second Presbyterian Church; in 1818 he was among the founders of an AME Church in the city. The first independent black denomination in the nation, it had recently been organized in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The AME Church was supported by white clergy in the city and rapidly attracted 1848 members, making this the second-largest AME congregation in the nation. City officials twice closed it for violating slave laws related to times and purpose of gatherings.

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. Word of the plan was leaked, and 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. Later one of his sons was judged guilty of this conspiracy and was among many blacks deported from the United States.

In 1822 the city-appointed Court of Magistrates and Freeholders continued to review cases after Vesey's execution and some public criticism; twice as many slaves were arrested in July as in June, and nearly 30 more were executed. The Court continued into August. They examined a total of 131 men, convicted 67 of conspiracy, hanged 35 (including Vesey), deported 31 men, reviewed and acquitted 27, and questioned and released 38. In October, the Court issued An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes..., which historians have relied on as the primary record of Vesey's life and the planned rebellion, as other evidence was scarce.

In reaction, the city and state passed new restrictions on free blacks and slaves, an agenda pushed by Charleston's mayor James Hamilton, Jr. against what he considered the paternalistic approach by other slaveholders to improve slave treatment. Since the mid-20th century, the Report and Vesey's life have been subject to differing interpretations. Such historians as Douglas Egerton, David Robertson and Edward Pearson have stressed Vesey's leadership and agency in planning a broad, complex movement among slaves. Historians have also paid attention to the differing agendas of Hamilton and Governor Thomas Bennett, Jr., a moderate who criticized the work of the Court. Richard Wade, Michael Johnson, and Lacy Ford have suggested that Hamilton and the Court exaggerated the scale of the rebellion to serve their own agenda, and built on the crisis to gain strict new legislation controlling slaves and free blacks.

The city continued to be majority-slave up until the Civil War and majority-black well into the 20th century. Many antislavery activists came to regard Vesey as a hero. During the American Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass used Vesey's name to recruit African Americans for the United States Colored Troops, especially the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. What became known as the Denmark Vesey House in Charleston was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Three books were published on Vesey and the rebellion in 1999, reviving interest in his life and actions. In 2014 a statue in honor of Vesey was erected in Charleston.

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