In the aftermath of Dylann Roof’s assassination of nine black people at historic Emanuel A. M. E. Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17th, some media commentators briefly mentioned the name Denmark Vesey. Most history books skip or bury America’s largest slave rebellion and its leader, Denmark Vesey, also a founder and leader of Charleston’s “Mother” Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
With certitude I reason that 21 year old white nationalist shooter Dylann Roof was steered to Emanuel’s Wednesday night Bible Study to start “a race war,” because of the church’s history of strength, resiliency and quiet revolutionary fervor. The fact that his killing field enwrapped him in Christian love, and while mourning their dead, nine families showered him in Christian forgiveness, has ricocheted across America – probably most of the world. Mother Emanuel has rendered the live version of The Gospel!
Reality not theory or dreaming molded Denmark Vesey’s Pan-African mindset. At 14 in 1781 and long without his parents, apparently sold and long gone from the Danish Virgin Islands where he and 389 other slaves were now being shipped to French St. Domingue, the young boy quickly got favored by Captain Joseph Vesey. (St. Domingue became Haiti after the Island’s blacks defeated the French, Spanish and English during their successful 1791 to 1804 revolution.)
The boy’s name sounded like Telemaque to the slavers but later he became Denmark Vesey. Surprisingly, Captain Vesey sold the boy in St. Domingue with the rest of his human cargo. This smart kid was not about to cut sugar cane in the hot sun 12 hours a day. So he pulled off a series of perfect acting stunts. He feigned epileptic fits, even fooling a French physician.
Some three months later when Captain Vesey returned to St. Domingue with more slaves he reimbursed the plantation owner and took Telemaque and renamed him Denmark because of his apparent Danish background and Vesey, and made the boy his personal assistant. For two years the boy traveled the various Islands and Africa aboard the slave ship and was conversant in Danish, French and English, all of which he picked up as a matter of survival.
Denmark Vesey would remain a slave of Joseph Vesey for seventeen more years, during which time he’d become an accomplished carpenter, building ships and buildings as the city of Charleston expanded. Although it was illegal for slaves to learn how to read and write, Denmark learned at a high level. Joseph Vesey had sold his ship in 1783, bought some land and married for the third time and with his few slaves and his ability to cut deals he always made money.
Denmark Vesey kept some of his earnings, which was ok with Joseph Vesey. One day in December of 1799, Denmark Vesey played the East Bay Street lottery. A few weeks later he found out that he had the wining ticket and got $1500. He immediately bought his freedom for $600. He then lived quietly and prosperously as a free black carpenter with black helpers until 1810 when he began to change, exhibiting a militant attitude.
The Denmark Vesey led rebellion of 1822 failed because of black informers. More than nine thousand slaves were involved in what would have been the largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States. Black people were trained as a skilled labor force in the Americas through slavery. Therefore, the ability to manufacture weapons as blacksmiths and carpenters, for example, was not difficult. Relieving garrisons and other places of munitions was also an integral aspect of the plan.
Vesey’s meticulous plan included burning the city of Charleston to the ground and killing all its white inhabitants except ship captains that would carry Vesey and his revolutionary followers to Haiti and Africa. What is ultimately so fascinating about Vesey and company’s organizing precept is whom they excluded and included.
In next week’s Part 2 of the Denmark Vesey saga we will see how Vesey utilized religion, language and culture as organizing tools. We will also discover how Charleston came from almost nothing before the Barbadians came, to a city governed like a police state as early as 1790.
Al Calloway is a longtime journalist who began his career with the Atlanta Inquirer during the early 1960s civil rights struggle. He may be reached at Al_Calloway@verizon.net