Freedman convicted of planning slave revolt still subject of controversy

CHARLESTON -- A hand-scrawled line in an archived church book is the newest scab to be picked in a torment that still scars the psyche of Charleston after nearly 200 years.

The line reads: "Denmark Vesey, April 1817" next to a notation, "Black People." It's a listing in the Second Presbyterian Church session book, essentially the minutes of decisions made by the church elders. The listing establishes Vesey as a "communicant," a member in good standing. What's glaring is what's missing -- no further entry, no notice of dismissal or censure. Other names on the page have those.

Nearly 200 years after white Charleston was terrorized by word that the freedman had plotted a bloody insurrection with Lowcountry slaves, the divide is still starkly black and white. To some people, Vesey is a galvanizing figure in the fledgling abolition movement. To others, he is a vicious criminal. There may be no more polarizing figure in a Charleston history dog-eared with them.

The groundbreaking held recently to place a monument to Vesey in the city's Hampton Park has re-ignited a slow burn between the people who think Vesey should be lauded for doing the only honorable thing a man could in his circumstance and the people who think it's wrong to honor a man who meant to murder.

The dispute roils on over conjecture as much as fact. Vesey is not well known outside of the transcript of his trial, and the trial testimony has been attacked as coerced perjury. Historians and history buffs alike pick away at the record and surmise from later accounts. The monument has moved the arguments over Vesey from the halls of academia to street-level Charleston.


The painting of Denmark Vesey that hangs in Gaillard Auditorium is a portrait of his back. There's a world of symbolism in that.

So little is known about him that the portrait artist couldn't paint his face -- nobody can say exactly what he looked like. Vesey the man has become little more than a cipher, "a creation of what (people) want, not what happened," in the words of Pat Mellen, the man who found the church archive record.

This much is generally agreed to be fact: Vesey was a former slave who worked on slave trading ship owned by a Capt. Joseph Vesey, from whom he took his name. He likely was born in the Caribbean. When Captain Vesey settled in Charleston, the slave came with him and was hired out as a skilled construction craftsman. In 1799, Vesey bought an East Bay lottery ticket. With the $1,500 he won, he bought his freedom.

"Amazingly, Captain Vesey allowed him to purchase his freedom -- Captain Vesey didn't take all his money," said Bernard Powers, College of Charleston history professor.

The trial-transcript story of what happened next says Vesey became a leader in the fledgling African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston, preached the Bible as God's command that slaves rise up to be free, and plotted a massacre of whites. He was tried, convicted and hanged in 1822, along with 33 others.

A shelf full of books has been written sorting through the trial transcript and piecemeal, anecdotal accounts -- a lot of it is secondhand. Historians generally agree that Vesey plotted some kind of insurrection; some disagree how much violence he actually plotted.

Mellen is the Second Presbyterian Church historian and voracious reader of Charleston history, particularly the Vesey incident. The archive record he found leaves him at odds with that history. Mellen thinks Vesey ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. He believes the trial was a circus orchestrated to advance the career of Mayor James Hamilton. The witnesses were forced to lie and Vesey executed to drive home a point to blacks freed and enslaved.

'The man was an abused victim rather than a crazed zealot,' Mellen said. "A well-established white man with a military background couldn't have carried it out. How could Vesey?"


Vesey was nearly 60 years old when he went to trial, Mellen said. That's a little long in the tooth for a firebrand.

The absence of a note alongside the name in the session book and other church records suggest the freedman remained"a member in good standing and a pew holder, which is quite an honor," Mellen said. "The church held him in good communion until the day he died, which is something that took a lot of courage back then."

If there had been concern about Vesey, church elders would have been quick to distance themselves from him -- there would have been considerable discussion and a vote. All that would have ended up in the record. All Mellen can find in the book is a tidy 1822 notation that church elders consider an unidentified man innocent of the charges against him. Not enough records survive to pinpoint the man or the exact date.

Mellen thinks it's unlikely that anyone plotted to decimate the population of the second-largest city in the country, some 30,000 people, and the trial record shows that Hamilton originally didn't believe Vesey did it.

The Presbyterian church had donated money to help start the AME church, and Mellen thinks the church sent Vesey to the congregation as an emissary. No original AME record -- or any other contemporary record -- survives to contradicts it, Mellen said.

The donated money alone would be enough to rile people up.

The years around 1820 marked a turn for the worse in relations between whites and freed blacks in the Lowcountry, according to historians. Beforehand, it was unusual but not that rare for a slave with marketable skills to buy freedom. Freed blacks lived in a testy equanimity with whites, so long as they didn't get in anybody's way.

But in the 19th century, the abolition movement grew muscle and scattered reports of slave uprisings -- particularly in the Caribbean -- exacerbated an anxiety among whites in the Lowcountry, where they were far outnumbered by blacks. Meanwhile, the cotton economy took off, increasing the need for field-hand labor. A state law passed in 1820 dictated slaves could no longer be emancipated withouta court decree. It was followed by legislative attempts to re-enslave freedmen.

The fiery preaching of the AME movement stoked the fears, Mellen said.


If Mellen is right, both sides in the furor are caught short. Vesey wasn't a criminal; he wasn't a chain-rattling freedom fighter.

Mark Jones and other historians, including Powers, don't think Mellen is right. Jones is a local author who researched Vesey for his book, "Wicked Charleston."

"There's no real doubt he was involved in (the insurrection)," Jones said. Any number of noted African-Americans in Charleston deserve to be honored more than Vesey, because he meant to do violence, he said.

"I understand why some people don't want the (Hampton Park) monument; they always bring up the terrorism aspect. It's volatile, because if that's what (Vesey and others) were trying to do, and it had succeeded, God knows what would have happened," Jones said. In old-school Charleston, "you're always defending the family's name. It's here; it keeps bubbling up to the surface anytime something like this happens."

Powers, who has researched black history of the time, was struck by Mellen's finding but said the idea that Vesey was innocent is inconsistent with what's known about what was going on in slave and freed communities of the time, and the contemporary accounts support a sense that the people were convinced an insurrection was about to occur.

"Denmark Vesey did what any man would do. It was extremely ruthless oppression," Powers said. He quotes President John F. Kennedy: "If you make peaceful change impossible, you make violent revolution inevitable." The call for revolution among an enslaved people is the very significance of Vesey, Powers said; in the 1970s, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist.

"People do want heroes. They want somebody who will stand up to the system, who'll be the voice of the voiceless. There's something uniquely American about that," he said.

Mellen thinks Vesey is more significant as a symbol of persecution.

"Everyone wants him to be a freedom fighter who (wanted to) murder women and children. I don't know any freedom fighter who wanted to murder women and children. It's more noble if he were killed for someone else's personal gain," he said. "There's a lot of emotion in this, a lot of opinions. As an historian, I don't believe in that. I just would like people to face the history. Bring your primary source proof and I'll bring mine. It cries out that this was a decent man who was victimized."

One way or another, the legacy of Denmark Vesey persists.

"To me, it's one of the most interesting stories in Charleston, because if he had been successful, Charleston history would have been different," Jones said. "Put yourself in his shoes in the 1820s, what would you do?"