Black Charlestonian Denmark Vesey (born Telemaque) was hanged at dawn in 1822, accused of organizing and very nearly executing what would have been the largest slave revolt in US history. His story is still controversial today, and I've chosen him as my latest subject for a portrait drawing for Black History Month:
He was born in St. Thomas or possibly Africa in 1767 and spent his youth enslaved on the island until one day in 1781, at age 14, when he was pulled aside and marched at gunpoint with 300 other enslaved people to the slave ship of Captain Joseph Vesey.
Vesey sold Telemaque for hard labor on a sugar-cane plantation in French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), but his purchaser forced Vesey to take the boy back when they discovered his epilleptic fits (possibly faked, as they were never known to recur). Vesey, then 34 years old, enjoyed his company, and possibly because his own parents had died when he was the boy's age, he acted as both master and guardian for Telemaque, who was appropriately named for the son of seafaring explorer Odysseus. He made Telemaque his personal assistant and interpreter for the next three years on the ship, teaching him to read and write.
Captain Vesey, born in Bermuda, had previously purchased land in Charleston and fought as a Carolinian on behalf of the rebelling Patriots in the American Revolution. Recognized as a courageous fighter whose expertise of the coastline allowed for clandestine navigation, Vesey would likely have shared these stories with Telemaque. As shocking as Telemaque's 1822 trial for insurrection would later be, one must remember that in 1781-3 he was entering an American society where just a few short years before, ordinary people had openly engaged in guerrilla warfare to overthrow their colonial overlords, in which many Black people had participated.
Captain Vesey settled in Charleston, SC, in 1783, which was then a major port for the slave trade, to become a ship chandler and slave broker. By this time Telemaque was called Denmark Vesey.
Urban slave life in Charleston was nothing like plantation life or even slavery in other Southern cities. The 1820 Census listed only 11,654 White people in the City, outnumbered by 12,652 enslaved and 1,475 free Black people, and surrounded by many tens of thousands of rural plantation slaves. A mere 8-9% of those White people controlled Charleston's wealth and political power. By Vesey's arrival a state of fear and constant subjugation of Black people had gripped the city for nearly a century.
Enslaved Black people and White people lived in close quarters, as crowded narrow plots of land contained mansions or smaller rowhouses for "the Family" of White people with slave quarters standing separately in the back. Strict codes of behavior for "house slaves" ensured the two never intermingled, and that a free neighborhood could double as a police state for Black people.
|The exterior of the Aiken-Rhett House slave quarters, built 1820. An unusually "state of the art" building for the grand house, its arrangement is nonetheless customary for tightly packed, highly regimented urban slave dwellings. Living quarters were on the second floor; kitchen and washrooms were ground floor. [Image shows a long two-story grey stucco building with forest green windows and shutters lining it like a prison]. Photo via.|
|The interior of the bare-bones Aiken-Rhett House slave quarters (or barracks, really). People would have been cram-packed into these rooms. Privacy was scarce. Photo via.|
|A man in a historic photograph reveals the scars on his back from whipping. Photo via.|
|Illustration of a slave auction in Charleston (I think I recognize this street corner as a modern day bus stop). [Historic illustration shows the turmoil of a crowded auction and a Black family and White auctioneer on a platform on the sidewalk].|
Joseph Vesey allowed Denmark to practice self-hire as a carpenter until November 9, 1799, when Denmark won $1500 in a street lottery and bought his freedom. I repeat, he won $1500 in a street lottery and bought his freedom.
|Map of Charleston, 1849. Via Wikimedia Commons.|
Vesey set up his own business as a carpenter, which would become enormously successful with a large Black clientele, and moved to an area of the Charleston Peninsula called the Neck. In those days Boundary Street (modern day Calhoun) was the official City Limits, but people had begun settling north of Boundary anyway. With official police and patrol jurisdiction north of Boundary patchy and unsure, and with abundant cheap land, working class White people, free Black people and some Native American people settled the new reputedly lawless area. White citizens soon formed their own night patrol in parts of the Neck.
Free Black and Brown (as "mulatto" or biracial people were then called) people lived in nearly segregated pockets of the Neck, some near Coming Street and others on the blocks north of Meeting & Boundary. They sought both to distance themselves socially and legally from slaves (and independent slave tenement neighborhoods), and were uneasy with the white working class, who often openly resented both slaves for undercutting their employment and wages, and free Black people since many White Charlestonians complained that "Negro" meant "Slave," and "free Negroes" were an offensive oxymoron. Since most manumissions resulted from children of interracial sex and rape, three fourths of all free colored people, and the great majority of comparatively well-to-do free colored property owners, were Brown, the wealthiest of them slaveholders. Exclusively Brown societies were created to provide insurance, professional services, and support for widows similar to a 20th century union, while the excluded free Black people generally struggled to make ends meet, forming their own societies in later decades.
|Nancy Weston, a mulatta Charlestonian, was photographed a few decades after Vesey's lifetime but her story is nonetheless representative of the lives of free Brown Charlestonians in Vesey's community. Photo via MulattoDiaries, where a commenter identifying as a descendent of Nancy's owners fills in the details. She was the child of a female slave and the Weston plantation owner, and had a child with the Grimke plantation owner. Grimke willed her to be enslaved in name only to his son Montague, the white half-brother to Nancy's own Brown sons. Because of complicated and often difficult manumission laws, many Black and Brown people like Nancy were held in nominal slavery by friends, family and benevolent owners. They had no legal rights and could be seized and sold elsewhere, for instance, to pay their owner's debts. She had been the mistress of a plantation, but Montague sold it and bought Nancy a house on Coming Street in Vesey's neighborhood, where she lived in poverty taking in washing. Montague then attempted to enslave Nancy's sons, who resisted and were beaten in the workhouse while Nancy, a slave, had no legal recourse. Legal claims to freedom could be disputed, with some claims (certified born to a White woman or born to two free Black people) stronger than others, creating a constant threat of instability for free Black people. At some point Vesey had children, for instance, and though fathered by a free man with various enslaved women, they had a weak claim to freedom and remained enslaved. When her son attempted to stay at her house to recuperate from an injury and Nancy refused to send him back to work, Montague sent Nancy to a workhouse for corrections, where she went on hunger strike until his friends persuaded him to have her released. Though laws of her era forbade educating nonwhite people (I'll get to that later) she taught her boys at night in secret, as did many Black and mulatto people. Nancy's granddaughter was Angelina Weld Grimke, the famous writer and abolitionist.|
|A "free badge," kept by free Black and Brown Charlestonians just like self-hire slave badges. Like South African Apartheid, Charleston was a "papers, please" police state for all Black people; punishments for being stopped without one's badge were severe. Photo via.|
In 1787 in Philadelphia Black members of the local Methodist church had grown so resentful of their unkind treatment and special restrictions that they left to form the first Free African Society and African Methodist Episcopal denomination. Soon after, Black members of a Charleston Methodist church chafed under White leaders who revoked their privileges to oversee their own church trials, hold their own quarterly conference, and manage their own collections. When White leaders disputed rights to the Black burial grounds and built a hearse house there, it was the last straw.
|Rev. Morris Brown. [Image shows a formal drawn or engraved portrait of a formally dressed balding Black man resembling Benjamin Franklin]. Image Credit: The Library Company of Philadelphia via PBS|
As free Black people gained a foothold in these various areas of society, White resentment turned to panic. Though free Black people were legally "denizens," not "citizens" Charleston's free Black codes were not as strict as in other states, attracting free Black immigrants from across the South. An 1800 law required only that a slave be able to support him/herself to be eligible for freedom (though I'm unsure how this worked in practise). But in 1820 a bill was passed that prohibited manumission (freeing of slaves) except by legislative decree (i.e. owners couldn't free slaves without the assembly's approval); out-of-state free Black people were prohibited from immigrating on punishment of enslavement; and the crossing of state lines by free Black people was curtailed.
Fearful White people found an enemy in the Bethel Circuit. A law was passed forbidding any assembly or "mental instruction" of Black people, free or enslaved, without a White person present to supervise. In 1817, 469 Black people were arrested for "disorderly conduct" in one AME church, and in 1818 140 members of Vesey's church, including Rev. Brown and other ministers, were arrested for violating the supervision law. Authorities shut down his Hampstead church again in 1820. Vesey, long struggling with White brutality toward his community, was livid.
Though details are scant, over his years in Charlston Vesey had had several children with more than one wife, all of them enslaved. Following the harassment of his church, witnesses later alleged, Vesey said he wanted to "see them free." They alleged that starting December 1821 Vesey began planning the largest slave uprising in US history, which would take place Bastille Day (July 14) 1822.
[You'll want to click below to keep reading....]
|Though I could find neither source nor artist, according to 7165 Lounge this is a painting of the planning of the Vesey uprising. [Image shows five Black people huddled in the woods with farm equipment, one dictating to the rest.]|
They were to march south through the unpatrolled Neck toward the City, opening a route toward the harbor for rural plantation slaves. Vesey allegedly planned to burn Charleston and kill the fleeing White people and any Black people who wouldn't join the revolt. They would then loot banks and stores, hijack ships in the harbor and set sail for Haiti, by then under Black rule, which had "promised to receive the rebels." Slaves in Haiti had terrified the slaveholding world by successfully revolting in the 1791 Revolution, years after Vesey had left French Saint-Domingue.
Three Black people reported the plot just days before it was to have begun. One man spied on the conspirators and informed a house servant; another free slave-holding Brown man urged this servant to inform his owner. The first two were later awarded $50 annual pensions and the informant became a landowner and slave holder; the third man was excused from paying the "capitation" tax for being a free Black person, awarded $1000 and used it to buy a family of slaves.
Mass hysteria broke out.
The trial began amidst a media blackout (which is why, I'm guessing, we don't even know what Vesey looked like today). Slaves had no habeas corpus and free Black people were not granted constitutional rights. Over 90% of incriminating testimony came from only six or fewer people while in jail, coerced and threatened, held in solitary confinement for up to several weeks, and an unknown number of them tortured. Surviving trial transcripts were edited, but they show no cross-examination of witnesses; belonging to "The African Church" was treated as evidence of involvement. Some contemporary accounts held that Denmark Vesey brilliantly cross-examined witnesses and built a solid case of innocence, but by other accounts he wasn't permitted to speak at all. None of the defendants plead guilty.
|The Charleston Jail (currently the College of Building Arts) where the accused were imprisoned, held in solitary confinement and tortured. Photo via Wikipedia.|
Captain Joseph Vesey testified on Denmark Vesey's behalf, as did around twenty-five other owners of the enslaved accused. Mystified and shocked, they testified to their "good characters" and behavior.
While it may seem obvious to modern readers why people would revolt against enslavement, the magistrates voiced disbelief that Vesey and his co-conspirators, all freed or skilled slaves, were dissatisfied, much less planning to revolt. According to one magistrate, the men "not only won the unlimited confidence of their owners, but they had been indulged in every comfort, and allowed every privilege compatible with their situation in the community."
According to a post on 7165 Lounge, the threat of insurrection only continued as the trial progressed. A night brigade of troops and an additional brigade for day patrolled to quell rebellion, and US troop re-enforcements arrived by August to maintain order.
In total, 313 people were arrested for allegedly conspiring to revolt, 131 accused, 67 convicted, and 35 executed, including Vesey. Four white men were tried, imprisoned and fined, three of them working class immigrants from Europe, one an American-born shopkeeper who allegedly told Vesey he "had a white face but the heart of a Negro." A large number of slaves involved were "transported," or sold out-of-state. Those executed were possibly hanged from the Ashley Avenue Oak tree, or on North Line between King and Meeting. By the second account, the platform was built so low their necks didn't break, instead they slowly strangled. Meanwhile a Guardsman shot them one by one in the head as they strangled, pausing to re-load between each person. Archivists believe none of the bodies were released to the families for proper burial and their resting place remains unknown. Owners of the executed enslaved people, though, were compensated by the state.
But in 1964, historian Richard Wade suggested a radically different version of events, wherein the conspiracy was not one of slaves but of White politicians against the free Black class. A similar theory has again been suggested recently (and famously) by Johns Hopkins professor Michael P. Johnson. Due to mounting White hysteria prior to 1822, goes the theory, over to the growing prominence of free Black people combined with the legacy of Haiti, White politicians either invented or inflated Vesey's alleged plot, possibly framing him because his influence threatened White power. Mayor James Hamilton Jr. in particular may have inflated the incident to advance his own career; indeed, he was elected to US Congress in 1822, propelled by fame from quelling an "insurrection." Hamilton's political rival, Governor Bennett (to whom the three informants first allegedly leaked the plot), though publicly condemning the uprising, likewise thought Hamilton was inflating the details. The "not guilty" pleas could mean the defendants refused to admit to a crime they did not commit, or Vesey could have been willing to withhold his confession, thereby protecting others from death. According to Wikipedia, though, "In the April 2011 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, historian James O'Neil Spady showed that [...] the statements of some of the earliest witnesses [...] 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." These theories, though far from improbable on their surface, are not widely accepted among academics.
Regardless of the veracity of the allegations, they were believed to be true at the time, and the backlash was swift and very real.
Vesey's church was investigated and demolished by the City in 1822. The church was rebuilt or relocated and services continued. Rev. Morris Brown, though not found guilty, left Charleston (or was forced to flee) to eventually become the second ever Bishop of the AME denomination in Philadelphia. Vesey's last wife Susan would later move to Liberia. One of his enslaved sons, Sandy, was transported, likely to Cuba.
That year a bill was passed criminalizing any free Black person leaving South Carolina, under penalty of enslavement if they returned; every free Black person was required to find a respectable white "guardian" to monitor and attest to their "good habits and character" and to report their guardianship with the city council; noncompliance was punished with enslavement, and any white person reporting noncompliance was rewarded with half the proceeds from the resulting slave auction. Free and enslaved Black people were banned from saloons and public parks without a white "guardian" present, for example, and curfew was enforced; well-respected Black and Brown organizations had to adjourn their meetings to meet curfew. To help enforce the crack-down a new arsenal and guardhouse was staffed on the northern edge of modern-day Francis Marion Square on Calhoun, eventually becoming the old Citadel, a military school still in operation in a different location in Charleston.
|Modern-day Francis Marion Square Park; the old Citadel, at left, is now a hotel, and someone has painted it a grotesque Band-Aid color sometime during the 20th Century. Photo via Wikipedia.|
"An Act to Prevent the Emancipation of Slaves" in 1841 banned "trusts," and criminalized the removal of slaves from the state in order to free them. By that time, as one plantation owner's son remarked upon inheriting slaves, any slave owners who wished to free their slaves could not legally do so.
|Black Civil War troops depicted in the Shaw Memorial, Boston. Photo via. [Image: photo of a close-up portion of a bronze relief sculpture showing one of several lines of of marching troops 4 men deep with guns over their shoulders.]|
|The congregation in front of the old Emanuel AME two story wooden building, built 1872 and demolished 1886 in an earthquake.|
|Present Emanuel AME building in 1909, via College of Charleston Library. Calhoun, now a major thoroughfare, was then paved in cobblestone.|
|Present-day Emanuel AME Church on Calhoun, now stuccoed and painted white in traditional Charleston style, across the street from my favorite art store. Photo credit not found.|
|Coretta Scott King at nearby Morris Brown AME after addressing a mass rally at Emanuel AME in 1969 for the rights of striking MUSC hospital workers, a major Charleston civil rights event. Photo via Lowcountry Digital Library.|
In 1976 artist Dorothy B. Wright painted Vesey's portrait for display in Gaillard Auditorium. Following public criticism somebody stole the painting, and when the Mayor announced his intentions to commission a replacement, it was returned and extra security added. According to another source, it was stolen, tossed into the bushes outside the building, and was subsequently bolted down. A white Charleston News and Courier reporter wrote, "they could not have found a local black whose portrait would have been more offensive to many white people." Wright herself expressed surprise at the painting's controversial reception. I don't yet know if the painting will be displayed in the new Gaillard Auditorium currently under construction.
|Denmark Vesey, as imagined by Dorothy B. Wright and hanging in the Gaillard Auditorium. I think those are reflections in the glass frame over Vesey's figure. Photo via. [Image description: Realistic but folksy style painted scene of a grey-haired Vesey, viewed from behind and to one side, addressing the vividly dressed congregation from his rough-hewn pulpit. His face is not visible.]|
Most recently in 1996 a group of local advocates proposed a monument to Vesey, Gullah Jack and Peter Poyas (an alleged co-conspirator) but it was still considered controversial. Plans were held up until proponents agreed to relocate it away from the posh tourist-heavy Historic District, to Hampton Park. Funds, continuously a problem for the monument, are still being raised for its completion, though ground has been broken in 2010. According to the 7165 Lounge blog, when the monument was first proposed local commentators and letters to the editor were aghast at erecting a monument to "an advocate of ethnic cleansing," "a mass murderer," "a terrorist," "the guy who wanted to kill all the white people." A Citadel history professor objected to the "obsession with race" which he believed drove people to memorialise Vesey, pointing out to reporters that some free Black people owned slaves too, saying “I’m not a fan of applying our values of today to the past; this is cherry-picking history.” Personally, I find these slavery-ignoring "race war" arguments absurd, especially considering our city's numerous statues and sites commemorating leaders who were notoriously brutal slave owners, Revolutionary War guerrilla fighters (technically terrorists), confederate leaders (technically traitorous) and even local pirates, not to mention the confederate flag which still flies conspicuously from our State Capitol building in Columbia or even our nation's many monuments to Andrew Jackson, who actually was a perpetrator of ethnic cleansing (of Native Americans).
|Prototype for the Denmark Vesey Memorial by sculptor Ed Dwight. Photo via bernews.com [Image shows a miniature of three staid bronze statues of the men facing outward from three sides of a tall stone pedestal].|
As I mentioned above, because of the secrecy of the trial we have no surviving descriptions or images of Vesey's appearance. We know Captian Vesey remarked on Denmark's physical beauty as a young man and that Denmark Vesey was charismatic; we know he was only 55 when hanged. So all artists' depictions are simply imagining what he would have looked like. Still, he has been portrayed by many over the centuries.
|The most commonly cited, almost standard, portrait of Vesey is actually of a young Frederick Douglass. It matches later photographs of Douglass.|
|Denmark Vesey, as imagined by printmaker Charles White, in a style that reminds me of this post I wrote last year. Gibbes collection, via. [Image: Black and white folk-modern or Harlem Renaissance style lithograph of a man's head as he peers back over his shoulder at the viewer. His face looks weary and serious, his hair cropped short and his features shaded in high contrast to emphasize their etched, geometrically sculptural forms. His head leans back as it twists, with the center line of his face forming a diagonal from bottom left to top right.]|
|Michael Perelman created this illustration, which I absolutely love, for the book jacket of David Robertson's Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It. Photo via Amazon. Michael Perelman, if you find this post whilst Googling your own name (we all do it), be aware that it took me fully 45 minutes of very inventive Internet scouring to find the art credit for this fantastic cover. Tag your images, man, they're great! [Image description: a vertically aligned book cover with a loosely painted bust portrait in the top third, the jagged painted edge giving way to bare cream-yellow colored canvas or background filling the bottom two thirds. Title and author text are superimposed over the bottom half in a mix of black fonts that vaguely recalls old Western "Wanted" posters. The painting looks like the hastily blocked out underpainting for a classical Academic portrait of a youngish attractive Black man in formal white 1820s shirt and black suit jacket. Only three shades of brown block out the shadows of his face with no eye or nostril detail but remaining structurally realistic. The background, before giving way to bare canvas, appears to be a very sketchy pale blue sky with classically heroic clouds. It feels like a mysterious unauthorized glimpse at a formal academic portrait.]|
Though a pillar of the community, I depicted him alone both to recognize his hard-won independence and privacy, but also the loneliness of a sailor whose companions were his enslavers, of an intellectual barred from scholarly pursuits, an immigrant in a new land, and a husband and father whose family were enslaved. Described by contemporaries as charismatic, physically beautiful and smart, I used his pose to portray his intellectual nature while using his weighty figure to hint at a life of physical toil while keeping the pose easy and elegant to hint at his persuasive public persona. His hair, though less flamboyant, is modelled after that of his near-contemporary Frederick Douglass, because an artist should always take the opportunity to recreate Douglass's hair wherever possible; also it leant itself to neat lighting effects. I'm not sure what a free Black tradesman / illicit Reverend would have worn in his everyday life but these clothes are fairly accurate to the time, at least.
The map of Charleston on his desk refers both to the plot and to his navigational skills as ship assistant, as well as his literacy and scholarly disposition. The lamp represents the usual light-y symbols: God and Church, intellect, hope, and his own position as a beacon and guide for the Black communities of Charleston. Meanwhile the surrounding darkness elicits the covert nature of his plans, but also the forced secretiveness and protective privacy of the life of a Black person of the era, either free or enslaved.
|Denmark Vesey, by Ciana Pullen, 2014. Charcoal, 14 x 17." Drawn entirely from imagination. You may reproduce this image for noncommercial purposes only, and you must include easily visible accreditation (i.e. my name) and a link back to this site.|
|Detail showing the map, flipped around so you can read it.|
Resources I used:
"Between the Tracks," published by Charleston Museum and Avery Research Center, written by Dale Rosengarten, Martha Zierden, Kimberly Grimes, Ziyadah Owusu, Elizabeth Alston, and Will Williams III, 1987, via Lowcountry Digital Library. [It takes a while to load and looks quite dry, but is an absolutely fascinating detailed history of the Neck, or neighborhoods north of Calhoun. I leaned heavily on this resource]
Bernews (i.e. a news site in Bermuda), "The Dual Legacies of Denmark Vesey," 2011, author not named.
The National Parks Service, US Dept. of the Interior website's page about Emanuel AME Church
The website for Emanuel AME Church
Avery Institute (a part of College of Charleston) website
College of Charleston Library website.
"Denmark Vesey," by The Incompetent Gardner, who quotes Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led it by David Robertson
SouthernSpaces, "Prop Master at Charleston's Gibbes Museum of Art," an exhibit by Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan.
Douglas R. Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. Madison House, 1999; the 2004 edition published by Rowman & Littlefield is available for preview and purchase here.
Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan
Susan Harbage Page and Juan Logan
7165 Lounge, blog post about Denmark Vesey.
Mulatto Diaries, post on Nancy Weston by Tiffany Jones and comment by user "Bill Drayton."