Denmark Vesey  1767 - 1822

In 1822, Denmark Vesey claimed a place in history by organizing the first extensive slave revolt on American soil, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822.  The plot was simple but daring: Seize the city; kill all who stood in the way; and, if necessary, escape to the Caribbean or Africa.

Denmark Vesey was born in 1767 to unknown parents possibly in the West Indies.  In 1781, Captain Joseph Vesey, a slave agent, captured Denmark and brought him to San Domingo.  Vesey's intelligence and appearance impressed the agent, but he sold him anyway.  When young Denmark faked a seizure in the sugar fields, he was considered "unsound" and returned to Captain Vesey.

Denmark joined Vesey's stable of slaves first on slave-trading voyages to China and then in Charleston.  He proved to be a diligent worker and mastered the carpentry trade.  In 1800, when he was 33, Denmark won $1,500 in the lottery and used $600 of it to purchase his freedom.  He earned his living as a carpenter and earned the respect of his peers as a lay reader in the newly-established African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Despite having won his freedom, Vesey bemoaned the plight of the slaves still in bondage.  He became inspired by reports of Toussaint L'Ouverture's slave revolt in Haiti and pledged to lead a similar insurrection.  Using the church as a base, he secretly organized, recruited and mobilized slaves in the Charleston area.

For the next five years, he planned the revolt, until he had organized 9,000-member army of slaves and freedmen, consisting of those within 100 miles of Charleston as well as a band of slaves from Thomas Island.  An arsenal of weapons and vehicles had also been acquired to aid in the revolt.

At first, the date set to begin the insurrection was July 14, 1822, was a night with no moon, a vacation time for whites, and a Sunday when plantation hands would arouse no suspicion by being in the city.  The insurrectionists were to seize all key places such as arsenals and bridges, and eventually make their escape to San Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.

The plot seemed fail-safe because the leaders had exercised extreme secrecy and had avoided interacting with "trusty" slaves who might leak plans to white slave masters.  Despite the utmost care, the plot was uncovered by a slave who told his master.  The date was moved up to June 16th.  Again, the secrecy was betrayed.  Seeing the carefully mapped out plan ruined, Vesey tried unsuccessfully to get the word to other units.  But white authorities moved fast, arresting key plotters.

On June 22, Vesey was found at home of an ex wife and was arrested.  He and others stood trial on June 23, 1822, and were hung July 2nd.  Before the trials ended, a total of 35 were hanged; 38 were released for lack of evidence; 15 were acquitted; and 43 were sentenced to deportation.  The informers were given their freedom and lifetime support.

Vesey became a symbol of martyrdom in the cause of liberty; for, as the chief judge said at Vesey's trial: "It is difficult to imagine what infatuation could have promoted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary.  You were a free man, were comparatively wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort... You had therefore, much to risk and little to gain."

Vesey's martyrdom has not faded in the many decades since 1822.  History has judged him a brave and visionary black.  Typical is the judgement of historian Sterling Stuckey: "Denmark Vesey did lead a conspiracy which must be regarded as one of the most courageous ever to threaten the racist foundation of America... He stands today, as he stood yesterday, as an awesome projection of the possibilities for militant action on the part of a people who have for centuries been made to bow down in fear.

Excerpt from A Salute To Historic Black Firsts

This is only a summary of the life of the Great Denmark Vesey.


Denmark Vesey - Mini Biography

Denmark  Vesey

Denmark Vesey - Audiopedia 

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