This essay, written purely as an amateur hobby, has grown unexpectedly popular as an historical resource. So, I've continued to edit and add pertinent information over time for any who may find it useful. Countless real historians have written far better material than I have here; I wrote this instead as a response to the surprising lack of casual popular knowledge, especially in Charleston. Specifically, I felt important aspects of his legacy weren't often being linked or given crucial context in the blogs and newspapers that the everyday person is most likely to read. Most commonly misunderstood is this: because of the silence of 1820s press and vigorous erasure of Vesey's legacy by panicked authorities, one cannot find out much for sure about the man himself. One must shift one's thinking and approach official historic sources just as one might regard the state-run news in some totalitarian country far away-- because for many, that's just what Charleston was.
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, who was born in Bermuda, had previously purchased land in Charleston and fought with the rebelling Carolinian Patriots in the American Revolution. Recognized as a courageous fighter whose expertise of the coastline allowed for clandestine navigation, Capt. 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 men, women and children 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. Awareness of how tenuous their control really was, only grew in light of the Haitian Revolution in 1791, which resulted from a massive successful slave revolt. The ensuing Black rule in Haiti shook the slave-owning world.
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 in the reputedly lawless new area, working class White people, free Black people and some Native American people began settling there in large numbers. 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). They were also kept their distance from the White working class, who simultaneously resented slaves for undercutting their employment and wages, and resented free Black people. Many White Charlestonians complained that "Negro" meant "Slave," thus "free Negroes" were an offensive oxymoron. Since most manumissions resulted from children of interracial sex and rape, three fourths of all free colored people were Brown. They comprised the great majority of comparatively well-to-do free colored property owners. The wealthiest of them were slaveholders. Exclusively Brown societies were created to provide insurance, professional services, and support for widows similar to a 20th century union. Meanwhile 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, for instance, Vesey had children, and though fathered by a free man with various enslaved women, they had a weak claim to freedom and remained enslaved. When Nancy's 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. 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 practice). 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 Charleston Vesey had had several children with more than one wife, all of them enslaved. According to a NY Times article he attempted to purchase his wife from her "owner" at the time he won the lottery and purchased his own freedom, but the owner refused to sell. 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.
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