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To Live as Slaves, or Die as Men?

Sometimes, your luck can change in the blink of an eye. The test you didn't study for gets postponed for a week. The lead in the school play moves away, and you're called in to take her place.

Today the Charleston Armory has been converted to a luxury hotel

Denmark Vesey's luck changed with a few winning numbers in the local lottery. One day, he was an urban slave in the South Carolina port-city of Charleston, and the next he was able to buy his freedom with the $1500 he had won by holding the right ticket.

It was an amazing stroke of luck. Because of this incredible circumstance, Denmark Vesey was able to plan the largest slave rebellion ever organized in the United States. Although ultimately unable to carry out his plan, Vesey proved to the world that blacks were not content to be worked and whipped for another man's wealth, and his efforts fueled the growing abolitionist fire of the mid-nineteenth century.

How did an ex-slave achieve so much?

Let's journey back to the beginning.

No one knows for sure where Denmark Vesey was born, but it is clear that he was enslaved on the Caribbean islands by the time he was 14. His first master decided Denmark was "damaged goods", because he was said to have had epileptic seizures, and returned him to the slave trade. The trader (Joseph Vesey) took him back, and Denmark became his personal slave. For two years, by his master's side, Denmark experienced the horrors of the Atlantic crossing. As the slave ships crossed back and forth to load and unload human cargo, Denmark was by his master's side, ready to hand him a change of clothes, or lower new slaves into the ship's hold.

Thought it terrorized Denmark to see Africans treated like animals, he gained an enormous amount of knowledge on his world travels. Denmark saw more of the world than most white men of his time ever did, and became fluent in English, French, Danish and Spanish.


After two years at sea, Joseph Vesey settled down in Charleston, SC. There, Denmark practiced carpentry. Since there wasn't a lot of work around the house, Joseph rented him out to work for others. This gave Denmark a certain amount of freedom to come and go when his appointments called him, and to keep a small portion of the money he made. His slavery was not the backbreaking misery of plantation life, but his life certainly was not his own.

In January of 1800, that all changed. After retrieving his prize money, Denmark sought to buy his freedom. Joseph set the price at $600, and Denmark exchanged those bills for his life.

His own life, however, was not enough.

sculpture built in

For the next twenty years, Denmark spoke against slavery, challenging white men and black to abolish such inhumanity. He quoted the Bible and the Constitution to prove slavery wrong, and impressed his listeners with intelligent arguments. He refused to step out of a white man's way on the street, or bow his head when passing. He read the local newspaper thoroughly, learning all he could about the successful 1791 slave revolt in the Caribbean country of Haiti.

Vesey inspired followers with speeches at the African Methodist Church

In 1820, there were more black people in Charleston than white. The Missouri Compromise was passed, allowing Missouri to enter the United States as a slave state, and Maine as a free state. Tensions were high, and the numbers of slaves in the South continued to explode. There were no signs of an end to southern slavery.

Sick and tired of waiting for the world to change, Denmark decided to do something about it. As stated in Lillie Edwards' biography of Vesey, "if whites would not give blacks the freedom that was rightfully theirs, then blacks would have to take it forcefully."

Using the African Methodist Episcopal Church as his base, Denmark gathered black men and women to join his revolution, and worked to recruit an army of slaves. Plans were kept secret, or on a need-to-know basis, so that even if they were questioned, no one person could implicate everyone involved.

The Charleston Armory was one of the places Vesey hoped to gain ammunition for the rebellion

The plan was ingenious. For months, hundreds of slaves worked carefully to make weapons, gather money, and encourage one another. A date was set for all of the slaves to come to Charleston, where they would kill any white person in their way and storm the city armory for the thousands more weapons needed. They hoped to receive reinforcements from Haiti and continue their uprising throughout the United States. Denmark wanted to fight so that every black man, woman and child, would have a chance to be free.


Vesey and his collaborators were held in this Charleston prisonVesey and his collaborators were held in this Charleston prison

The attack, set for July 14, 1822 was never realized. Word leaked to the white authorities that a slave revolt was being planned. The military was stepped up, and several of the conspirators were called in for questioning. Most of the blacks deceptively portrayed themselves as too ignorant to be involved in such a complex plot. Nevertheless, the white Charleston community was now scared and vigilant. Denmark moved the uprising up to June 15, but called it off at the last moment, fearing his plans had been discovered.

That was the end of Denmark's great attempt. By the next day, 10 of his co-conspirators had been arrested for questioning, and the evidence began to pile up against the leaders. Although only one of his trusted friends broke down under interrogation, Denmark was convicted in court.

The trials were handled swiftly to reassure the white community that there was no threat to their control nor reason for worry. Of the 131 people arrested:

  • 48 were whipped and released for lack of evidence
  • 26 were acquitted (but 11 were deported away from Charleston)
  • 67 were convicted for their part in planning the rebellion
  • 35 of those convicted were put to death
Strange that a country that had just fought for its own freedom from "tyranny" would so eagerly squash the rebellion of another group fighting for the same thing, isn't it?

Those totals might have been higher, however, had it not been for Denmark's secrecy and careful planning. Although we still do not know "how many thousands of slaves were prepared to destroy Charleston on that summer night in 1822," the number of volunteers was probably around 9,000.

Vesey's African Methodist Church was closed after the attempted rebellion

Denmark's luck changed for the worse when he was hanged on July 2 for attempting to incite a revolution against the established government. Denmark never saw a single shot or moment of battle, but his rebellion was NOT a failure. He proved that slaves could be organized to change the system and that freedom was a right that all people deserved.

Last week, I wrote about an enslaved freeman. This week, a freed slave. Ultimately, both Solomon Northup and Denmark Vesey were exceptional cases amongst millions of enslaved Africans who never knew freedom after being kidnapped to American soil, millions of voices left unheard. No slave's experience should be forgotten, for they remind us that "No man, woman, or child should work and receive nothing in return. And people should not be whipped, tortured, and worked to death merely because of the color of their skin" (Edwards). Denmark Vesey's attempted rebellion was a success, if we teach this lesson well.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Irene - The real scoop on Spielburg's "Amistad"
Nick - What it means to be a slave: Gabriel's story
Teddy -The murder and mayhem that was Nat Turner's rebellion
MAD - America's shame: A death penalty that includes teens