Denmark Vesey was born in 1757 in St. Thomas. The NPR story, “Denmark Vesey And The History Of Charleston’s ‘Mother Emanuel’ Church,” reports that Vesey was brought to the U.S. by Captain Joseph Vesey at the age of 14.
Abolitionist and minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote in his 1861 article for the Atlantic Monthly that ‘Vesey served Joseph faithfully, with no trouble from epilepsy, for twenty years, traveling all over the world with him, and learning to speak various languages.’
In 1800, he drew a prize of $1,500 in the East Bay Street Lottery, with which he bought his freedom from his master for $600 — much less than his market value. In his article, Higginson’s mentioned that “From that time, the official report says, he worked as a carpenter in Charleston, distinguished for physical strength and energy.”
NPR mentioned that Vesey, and another carpenter named Peter Poyas, plotted to kill the city’s white inhabitants, light its buildings on fire and escape to Haiti by boat. Vesey had even reached out to Haiti’s leaders, hoping to gain military aid.
According to the International Business Times, Vesey planned his rebellion with church members during weekly class meetings at his home. He frequently cited the Old Testament, particularly Exodus, which describes the story of Israelites fleeing slavery in Egypt.
The plan ultimately fell apart when an enslaved African revealed Vesey’s plans to his master.
Higginson noted that Vesey’s plan showed extraordinary ability in the leaders, and a talent for rigorous action on the part of the enslaved Africans. He continued by writing, “…a conspiracy on so large a scale should have existed in embryo during four years, and in an active form for several months, and yet have been so well managed.”
Vesey was a founding member of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina and became a symbol of resistance for Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe.