Died: July 2, 1822
Background/significance: Denmark Vesey was the leader and organizer of "the rising," a slave revolt that would have been the biggest in US history. The planned uprising in June of 1822 would have seen about 9,000 African-American slaves in Charleston and throughout South Carolina's Lowcountry escaping to Haiti, but just weeks before the planned date, the plot was leaked. Vesey and other leaders were tried by secret tribunal and hanged.
Perhaps the most inspiring and moving aspect of Vesey's story is that he himself was not a slave at the time of his planned uprising. He had bought his own freedom from slavery more than 20 years earlier. He gave his life for those who were still in bondage.
Vesey became a hero for 19th-century abolitionists and 20th-century civil rights leaders.
Vesey was born enslaved on St. Thomas in the West Indies. While he was a slave, he was known as Telemaque. At age 14, he was purchased by slave trader and ship captain Joseph Vesey and became his trusted assistant.
When Joseph Vesey retired from slave trading, Telemaque accompanied him to Charleston, South Carolina. He was fluent in English, French and Spanish and could read and write.
When Telemacque won $1,500 in the city lottery, he bought his freedom for $600 and developed a successful business as a skilled carpenter. Although he was a member of the community of free people of color in Charleston, he still identified with the enslaved.
He married an enslaved woman and tried to buy her freedom, but her owner refused to sell her. Under the law, their children would also be born into slavery and owned by the man who owned Vesey's wife. The owner steadfastly refused to allow Vesey to purchase either his wife's or his children's freedom.
Vesey was a devout Christian. He became increasingly frustrated with the restrictions he and other African-Americans (both enslaved and free) were under at the Second Presbyterian Church. In 1818, he co-founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, where he preached and taught. It became the second largest AME church in the US. Because most of its congregation consisted of slaves, the church was shut down several times by city officials, who were worried that the enslaved congregants were being taught to read in violation of law at the time. Vesey drew on the Bible and Christian story to craft a message of hope and redemption for the congregation.
In 1820, inspired by the story of the ancient Hebrews' escape from slavery under the Egyptians, Vesey began planning his slave rebellion. He worked with a small number of trusted leaders from his church. Eventually, he was able to recruit thousands of slaves and free people of color for the revolt, in both Charleston and for miles surrounding the city. The plan was to have multiple coordinated attacks, seize weapons from Charleston's arsenals, burn the city, kill white slave holders, liberate their slaves and sail to Haiti. The Republic of Haiti was founded 20 years earlier after the Haitian Revolution, the largest and most successful slave rebellion in history.
A few weeks before "the rising," however, two slaves learned of the plan and reported it to city officials.
Vesey and 35 other slaves were arrested, tried and executed.
After Vesey's failed uprising, state and city authorities created even harsher laws that further eroded the rights of both free people of color and slaves, as well as increased white militias and brutality toward slaves. Vesey's beloved church was burned to the ground and its congregation dispersed. No African-American church was founded in Charleston again until after the Civil War.
South Carolina connection:
His house at 56 Bull Street is now a National Historic Landmark. A statue of Vesey stands in Hampton Park.