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Photo of Bernard Powers in a Charleston street

Dr. Bernard Powers

by Bernard E. Powers Jr.

This year marks two centuries since the life and death of Denmark Vesey, a character whose role in Charleston’s history is even today still debated and often maligned.  We want to take this opportunity to briefly set forth some of the most salient features of his life and to particularly contextualize his insurrectionary plans and their aftermath.  There are many Vesey-related sites in Charleston today, including a marker which commemorates his life that was erected in Hampton Park in 2014.  Beginning on Thursday, July 14, there will be a series of activities in the city intended to further illuminate Denmark Vesey and the implications of his life.  This will be the most significant Denmark Vesey-related public event since 2014. Details of this Denmark Vesey Bicentenary are provided in this link. We hope you will take the time to participate.

Denmark Vesey was part of a radical trans-Atlantic antislavery tradition. In Africa and everywhere bondage existed, African people resisted enslavement. On plantations and in cities, slavery created a perpetual state of war, a battlefield where, as historian John Blassingame asserted, “slaves fought masters for physical and psychological survival.” This stark reality shaped Denmark Vesey.

Born enslaved in approximately 1767 on St. Thomas, Denmark was purchased there by slave trader Joseph Vesey and relocated to Charleston in 1783. Denmark remained enslaved until 1799 when he purchased his freedom with money from a winning lottery ticket. Now free, Denmark worked as a carpenter, had three enslaved wives and numerous children. His inability to free his family members was a source of continual frustration. This problem was aggravated by the routine racial discrimination free blacks experienced in Charleston and throughout the South.

A bronze statue of Denmark Vesey

Statue of Denmark Vesey holding a Bible and carpenter’s tools. Hampton Park, Charleston, SC.

Denmark Vesey found some comfort in spirituality. In 1817 he was a communicant at the white Second Presbyterian Church. However, after Charleston’s African Church formed in 1818 Vesey joined, becoming a class leader. Led by free black minister Morris Brown, this congregation consisted primarily of slaves who left Charleston’s white Methodist Church and affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) of Philadelphia. Being affiliated with this church was revolutionary, as a rejection of white authority, and because the A.M.E. Church was an abolitionist denomination! By this initiative taken by black Charlestonians, antislavery now extended into South Carolina, a state with an extraordinary commitment to slavery.  Unsurprisingly, white citizens and officials used every means to harass the church’s members and leaders, further radicalizing Vesey.

In a bold plan, Denmark Vesey and a cadre of skilled, privileged slaves organized rural and city slaves to overpower the municipal guard, arm themselves, set fires and escape to Haiti. Haiti was revered as the only place where enslaved people overthrew their colonial masters and created an independent nation. Offering legal protection to blacks who reached its shores, Haiti changed the geography of freedom in the Atlantic World. No wonder, Vesey’s compatriots tried communicating with Haitian leaders. However, their plans were betrayed. Trials followed, Denmark and thirty-four others were executed, and thirty-seven men were transported from the country. Municipal authorities also destroyed the African Church.

Denmark Vesey’s impact survived his demise in part because white South Carolinians never recovered from his dreadful plans. That is why writer Edwin Holland urged vigilance, describing slaves as “Barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.”  To counter the threat, Charleston’s police force expanded and the Citadel began in 1842 to provide white men with military training to protect a slaveholding society. The Negro Seaman Acts of 1822-23 now required jailing out-of-state free black sailors as dangerous antislavery influences.  Even so, abolitionists were not easily thwarted and some antislavery messages relied on the memory of Denmark Vesey. Reverend Henry Highland Garnet’s famous 1843 “Address to the Slaves” was an attempt to communicate directly with enslaved people and to encourage insurrection. In the speech Garnet elevated Vesey alongside Toussaint L’Ouverture, Nat Turner and Joseph Cinque in the honored pantheon of freedom fighters.  Then Garnet urged his audience to seize the moment:  “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. . .Rather die freemen than live to be slaves. . . .Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE!”  Similarly, popular novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s  Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp developed the theme of slave resistance.  Dred, one of the main characters, was a fugitive slave maroon whose personality and insurrectionary plans embodied the characteristics of both Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.

The foregoing developments and others such as John Brown’s 1859 Raid and the election of Abraham Lincoln the next year, coupled with South Carolina’s black majority, propelled the state into secession and war.  These radical steps were taken to protect white lives, to escape Denmark Vesey’s looming shadow; the effort failed and almost destroyed the nation in the process. Today’s persistent racial ills two centuries after Denmark Vesey’s life reveal how limited his options were, and how potent is the legacy of slavery. Vesey’s shadow persists, demanding we confront that legacy or risk the health and stature of the nation.

Bernard Powers, director of the College’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, is History Professor Emeritus at the College of Charleston. He is the author of _Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822-1885_ (1994), the co-author of _We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel_ (2016), which contextualizes the city’s 2015 racially motivated murders. Among numerous other works, his  most recent essay is entitled “Denmark Vesey, South Carolina, and Haiti: Bourne, Bound and Battered by a Common Wind” in James Spady’s _Fugitive Movements: Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World_ (2022).  Dr. Powers served as the interim president of Charleston’s International African American Museum (IAAM). He will participate in a panel discussion on Vesey on July 14. Cover of book "Fugitive Movements"

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