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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

September 11, 2019: Slave Rebellions: Denmark Vesey

[On September 9, 1739, enslaved African Americans began a brief but bloody rebellion in South Carolina. So this week on the 280th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy Stono and other rebellions and contexts, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of such revolts.]
On three compelling historical details about the leader of a thwarted 1822 rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina.
1)      Caribbean origins: Like many enslaved people, Vesey’s name changed in the course of his life; in his case, both his first and last name reflect aspects of a childhood spent in slavery on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas. His birth name was apparently Telemaque, and he was possibly descended from the region’s Coromantee indigenous people. When he was a teenager he was purchased by a Bermudan sea captain named Joseph Vesey, with whom a few years later (after the American Revolution’s conclusion) he would move to Charleston. After he gained his freedom in that city (more on that in a moment), he formally took Captain Vesey’s last name; he either adopted or was given the first name Denmark as a reflection of the European nation of which St. Thomas remained a colony in the late 18th century. While the gradual abolition of the slave trade meant that more and more enslaved African Americans were born in the U.S., Vesey reflects the continuing international identities included within that multi-layered community.
2)      Winning the lottery: Roughly 15 years after he and his owner moved to Charleston, Vesey literally and figuratively hit the lottery: on November 9, 1799, he won $1500 (more than $33,000 in contemporary terms) in a city lottery, which allowed him to purchase his freedom from Joseph for $600. That hyperlinked blog post and podcast episode from the Charleston County Public Library’s (and specifically its historian Dr. Nic Butler’s) wonderful Charleston Time Machine series goes into great detail about how and why such city lotteries developed, and the story has a lot to tell us about post-Revolutionary American communities, economics, and civic life. Without downplaying in any way the brutal realities of slavery in turn of the 19th century Charleston (and everywhere else), it is nonetheless striking that an enslaved man like Vesey could not only take part in the city’s lottery, but could have his life so profoundly affected and changed by that communal event.
3)      The African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church: More than two decades later, increasingly angry about the conditions of enslaved people in and beyond Charleston, Vesey and peers would spend more than a year planning the proposed July 1822 revolt. But only remembering him for that moment obscures his decades as a “free man of color” in the city, a period that included his marriage to an enslaved woman named Beck, the development of his successful carpentry business, and his co-founding of an AME Church (part of the broader AME movement, the first independent African American denomination in the US). In the aftermath of the failed rebellion, Charleston leaders ordered that church building destroyed; but it nonetheless can and should be seen as an ancestor to the city’s contemporary Emanuel AME Church, site of domestic terrorist Dylann Roof’s June 2015 mass shooting of nine African Americans. While Roof embodies the worst of American exclusion, past and present, both the church and Vesey (while echoing those horrific histories) help us remember alternative, inclusive histories.
Next rebellion tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

PPS. After completing this post, I realized I hadn't highlighted a great recent historical work on Vesey and collective memory: Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle's Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy (2018).

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