Civil Rights and Protests

Slave Revolts

Who was the first revolt leader of acclaim?

The first revolt leader of note was Denmark (Telemaque) Vesey (1767–1822), who in May 1822 organized a slave revolt in Charleston, South Carolina. Vesey and nearly fifty others were executed after the revolt, one of the most elaborate on record. Vesey, a sailor and a prosperous merchant carpenter, had been free since 1800. While still in his teens, he opened his own master carpenter shop in Charleston. He found himself, however, in a strange position as a free man in a slave society in which many free blacks owned slaves and participated in slave trading. He viewed this as moral corruption in the free black community, and he became determined to uproot slavery. State laws preventing children from being free if their mother was a slave, difficulties arising when Charleston blacks left the white-dominated Methodist Church for the new African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), and fines and taxes aimed at restricting the mobility of free blacks also contributed to his determination. Vesey had a revolutionary perspective and actively recruited followers for his cause, planning the uprising for several years. Five thousand blacks were prepared to participate in the revolt that was originally set for July of that year but moved up to June when Vesey learned that authorities had learned of his plans from traitorous insiders. Subsequently, he tried to postpone the revolt once more, but it was too late for word to reach everyone and the uprising proceeded. Vesey was arrested and tried the day after his arrest. Throughout the days following his arrest, however, Vesey and his co-leaders who had remained faithful refused to disclose any information; they are considered martyrs. Vesey was hanged two weeks after his arrest. On one July morning twenty-two men were killed in a mass execution. After the insurrection occurred, South Carolina and other states passed laws to control free blacks, to tighten the reins on slaves, and to keep watch for possible revolts.


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