Biography of Denmark Vesey, Leader of a Foiled Slave Revolt

A statue of Denmark Vesey, organizer of what would have been the largest slave revolt in US history.
Denmark Vesey plotted to overthrow slaveholders in Charleston, South Carolina.

Wikimedia Commons

Denmark Vesey was born circa 1767 in the Caribbean island of St. Thomas and died July 2, 1822, in Charleston, South Carolina. Known in his early years as Telemaque, Vesey was a free man of color who organized what would have been the largest slave rebellion in the United States. Vesey's work inspired abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and David Walker.

Fast Facts: Denmark Vesey

  • Known For: Organized what would have been the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history
  • Also Known As: Telemaque
  • Born: circa 1767 in St. Thomas
  • Died: July 2, 1822, in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Notable Quote: “We are free, but the white people here won't let us be so; and the only way is to raise up and fight the whites.”

Early Years

Born into slavery, Denmark Vesey (given name: Telemaque) spent his childhood in St. Thomas. When Vesey was a teen, he was sold by slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey and sent to a planter in present-day Haiti. Captain Vesey intended to leave the boy there for good, but ultimately had to return for him after the planter reported that the boy was experiencing bouts of epilepsy. The captain brought young Vesey along with him on his journeys for nearly two decades until he settled for good in Charleston, South Carolina. Because of his travels, Denmark Vesey learned to speak multiple languages.

In 1799, Denmark Vesey won a $1,500 lottery. He used the funds to purchase his freedom for $600 and to launch a successful carpentry business. However, he remained deeply troubled that he couldn’t buy the freedom of his wife, Beck, and their children. (He may have had up to three wives and multiple children altogether.) As a result, Vesey became determined to dismantle the system of slavery. Having briefly lived in Haiti, Vesey may have been inspired by the 1791 slave rebellion that Toussaint Louverture engineered there.  

Liberation Theology

In 1816 or 1817, Vesey joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a religious denomination formed by black Methodists after facing racism from white churchgoers. In Charleston, Vesey was one of an estimated 4,000 blacks to start an African A.M.E. church. He formerly attended the white-led Second Presbyterian Church, where enslaved black congregants were urged to heed St. Paul’s dictum: "Servants, obey your masters."

Vesey disagreed with such sentiments. According to an article written about him in the June 1861 edition of The Atlantic, Vesey did not behave submissively to whites and admonished blacks who did. The Atlantic reported:

“For if his companion bowed to a white person, he would rebuke him, and observe that all men were born equal, and that he was surprised that any one would degrade himself by such conduct — that he would never cringe to the whites, nor ought anyone who had the feelings of a man. When answered, ‘We are slaves,’ he would sarcastically and indignantly reply, ‘You deserve to remain slaves.’”

In the A.M.E. Church, African Americans could preach messages centered on black liberation. Vesey became a “class leader,” preaching from Old Testament books like Exodus, Zechariah, and Joshua to the worshippers who gathered at his home. He likened enslaved African Americans to the enslaved Israelites in the Bible. The comparison struck a chord with the black community. White Americans, however, tried to keep a close eye on A.M.E. meetings across the country and even arrested churchgoers. That didn’t stop Vesey from continuing to preach that blacks were the New Israelites and that slaveholders would be punished for their misdeeds.

On Jan. 15, 1821, Charleston City Marshal John J. Lafar had the church closed down because the pastors had educated enslaved blacks during night and Sunday schools. Educating anyone enslaved was illegal, so the A.M.E. Church in Charleston had to close its doors. Of course, this only made Vesey and the church leaders more resentful.

The Plot for Freedom

Vesey was determined to take down the institution of slavery. In 1822, he teamed up with Angolan mystic Jack Purcell, ship-carpenter Peter Poyas, church leaders, and others to plot what would have been the largest slave revolt in US history. Known as a conjurer who understood the supernatural world, Purcell, also called “Gullah Jack,” was a respected member of the black community who helped Vesey win more followers for his cause. In fact, all of the leaders involved in the plot were considered upstanding individuals, held in high esteem across racial lines, according to reports from the time.

The revolt, which was scheduled to take place on July 14, would have seen up to 9,000 black men from throughout the region kill any white man they encountered, set Charleston ablaze, and commandeer the city’s arsenals. Weeks before the rebellion was supposed to occur, however, some enslaved blacks privy to Vesey’s plans told their owners about the plot. This group included A.M.E. class leader George Wilson, who found out about the plot from an enslaved man named Rolla Bennett. Wilson, who was also enslaved, ultimately informed his owner about the revolt.

Wilson wasn’t the only person who spoke about Vesey’s plans. Some sources point to an enslaved man named Devany who learned about the plot from another enslaved man and then told a free man of color about it. The freedman urged Devany to tell his owner. When news of the plot spread among the slaveholders, many were shocked—not just about the scheme to overthrow them, but also that men they trusted had been involved. The idea that these men were willing to kill for their freedom seemed unthinkable to the slaveholders, who argued that they treated slaves humanely, despite keeping them in bondage.

Arrests and Executions

Bennett, Vesey, and Gullah Jack were among the 131 men arrested for conspiracy in connection to the insurrection plot. Of those arrested, 67 were convicted. Vesey defended himself during the trial but was hanged along with about 35 others, including Jack, Poyas, and Bennett. Although Wilson won his freedom due to his loyalty to his slaveholder, he did not live to enjoy it. His mental health suffered, and he later died by suicide.

After the trials related to the insurrection plot ended, the black community in the area struggled. Their A.M.E. Church was torched, and they faced even more repression from slaveholders, including being excluded from Fourth of July celebrations. Still, the black community largely regarded Vesey as a hero. His memory later inspired the black troops who fought during the Civil War, as well as abolitionists such as David Walker and Frederick Douglass.

Nearly two centuries after Vesey’s foiled plot, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney would find hope in his story. Pinckney led the same A.M.E. Church that Vesey co-founded. In 2015, Pinckney and eight other churchgoers were fatally gunned down by a white supremacist during a midweek Bible study. The mass shooting revealed how much racial injustice remains today.

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