Editor’s note: This is the 23rd installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate the city’s 350th anniversary.
More than 2,000 armed men spread out across Charleston as the clopping of search party horses echoed through the streets.
The noise would continue all night, but no one complained because no one could sleep. It was Sunday, June 16, 1822 — the night that the city’s enslaved reportedly had chosen for a violent insurrection.
The first rumors reached city officials at the end of May. A local house servant told his owner that other slaves had tried to recruit him for a plot they called “the rising.”
Slaves across the Lowcountry planned to arm themselves and kill their enslavers, then steal a ship and sail to Haiti. They’d been inspired by the island’s Saint-Domingue insurrection, and perhaps recent debate over extending slavery to the new state of Missouri.
One slave, William Paul, was arrested immediately, according to Walter J. Fraser Jr. in “Charleston! Charleston!” Officials were skeptical of his story, and dispatched one of their own slaves to gather intelligence. George Wilson confirmed many of Paul’s details, and soon even servants of the governor had been implicated.
Over the next three days, at least 10 African Americans were arrested. The city interrogated the men relentlessly, and quietly set up a court to try them out of public sight. Soon, they extracted the alleged ringleader’s identity.
They were looking for a free black carpenter named Denmark Vesey.
Vesey had come to Charleston in the late 18th century as a slave named Telemaque. Capt. Joseph Vesey let Telemaque hire himself out for work, and he spent some of his earnings on lottery tickets. Eventually he won $1,500 and, at 32, bought his freedom for $600. He adopted the name Denmark Vesey and set up shop as a carpenter.
According to Walter Edgar in “South Carolina: A History,” Vesey was respected among his peers but not particularly liked. He helped establish the local AME church, however, and taught Sunday school. Vesey was particularly fond of the book of Exodus, which included the story of the Israelites escaping slavery.
It took the militia three days to track down Vesey, but they finally arrested him on June 22. Vesey and his associates denied any knowledge of the plot, but the city put together a quick trial, convicted them and sentenced them to death. Vesey maintained his innocence until the end. Which came pretty quickly.
Vesey and five slaves, three of which worked for Gov. Thomas Bennett Jr., were hanged near what today is Line Street on July 2 — 10 days after Vesey's arrest.
Eventually, more than 30 African Americans were hanged in connection with the plot. A few white men were charged with abetting them.
The controversy began immediately. Gov. Bennett questioned the actions of Charleston officials, arguing they had violated the habeas corpus of the accused. The state’s attorney general said such rights applied only to free citizens, ignoring the fact that Vesey technically was free.
The governor published his opinion that the investigation was secretive and flawed. In fact, the testimony was wildly contradictory and Vesey’s name was offered up by another black carpenter — one of his competitors.
Although most assumed there was some truth to the story, and suspected Vesey played a large role, Bennett believed it was exaggerated. He suspected his political enemies had something to do with this, seeing as how he lost several servants.
But the story conveniently played to the city’s greatest fear, and gave officials an excuse to crack down on literacy and even religious services among the enslaved.
After the Stono Rebellion, colonial South Carolina had passed the Negro Act of 1740, which forbade African Americans from gathering in large groups or learning to read — and allowed for killing any who were rebellious.
Michael Allen, a retired National Park Service historian, says the act became encoded in the country’s DNA. It was, above all, “an effort to keep people ‘in their place.’”
“The foundation of all this was the Stono Rebellion,” Allen says. “Since the early 1700s, Charleston was a majority black city, and the greatest fear was an insurrection or mass killing.”
Some remnants of the act remained in effect into the 19th century. And so Charleston quickly razed the AME church and exiled pastor Morris Brown … along with one of Vesey’s children.
Vesey became a hero to civil rights advocates and a villain to others, and Charleston residents remained wary of future threats.
They did not yet realize the greatest threat to the city's future actually didn't come from the slaves, but the abolitionists.