Denmark Vesey – Leader of Failed Rebellion

Hampton Park, Charleston, South Carolina.  What a beautiful place to visit.  Shady walks with old, old oak trees covered with Spanish moss.

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Beautiful pond with ducks and a fountain.

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But also a place of history.  I recently wrote about the first Memorial Day celebration in the park.

Former Slaves and the First Memorial Day Celebration

In exploring the park, we also found more history that was never in the history books in school.  We turned a corner in one of the walkways and there was a statue of a black man with a book under one arm and a bag of tools in his other hand.  Who was he and what was a statute of him doing in this beautiful park?

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Denmark Vesey, a self-educated slave who planned a massive rebellion.  In one hand is a Bible and a bag of carpenter tools is in the other.

Being history nuts, my husband and I could not walk away without knowing this man’s story.

Denmark Vesey was sold when just a young boy to a slaver captain, Joseph Vesey in 1781.  Assuming his master’s name, Denmark accompanied his master on several voyages before they settled in Charleston, South Carolina.

Denmark was able to purchase his freedom in 1800 and began working as a carpenter.  He taught himself to read and soon read about the Haitian slave revolt in the 1790’s.  He joined the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817 becoming a leader and preaching in his own home every week.  Whites in Charleston constantly monitored the meetings often disrupting services and arresting members.

Vesey preached from the Old Testament telling the story of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt and how Moses led them to freedom.

Frustrated because he was not allowed to purchase freedom for his family, unhappy with being a second-class citizen and knowing first hand the oppressive conditions of the slaves, he organized a revolt.  The plan called for the slaves to attack guardhouses and arsenals, seize their arms, burn and destroy the city and free all the slaves.

Scholars do not agree on how many blacks were actually involved in the planned rebellion but estimates say it could have been as many as 9,000.

Warned by a house servant, the rebellion was thwarted before it could begin.

Some 130 blacks were arrested with 35 hanged.  Vesey was one of those 35.

Angry whites burned the African church and resticted even further the few rights the slaves in Charleston had.

Vesey became a martyr for African-Americans and a symbol for the abolitionist movement.  The increased loss of freedom and added oppression of the slaves helped to continue to pull the country toward Civil War.

Former Slaves and the First Memorial Day Celebration

Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina, is a beautiful place to walk or just sit and enjoy the many flowers, trees and the fountain.  When we spent a few months in Charleston during the winter of 2016 we walked almost every day in the park.  At 60 acres, there are plenty of walkways.  Just six months out from a knee replacement surgery, I found it a great way to get some exercise to build up my physical strength, but also a wonderful place to just sit and reflect on God’s creation.

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But the park is also full of history.

Originally part of a plantation owned by John Gibbes, the portion that is now Hampton Park was purchased by the South Carolina Jockey Club and a race course was built.  Named the Washington Race Course, the one-mile loop is now a roadway that runs around the park.  Featuring some of the best horse racing in the South, it became the social event of the year during Race Week held every February.

During the Civil War it became a camp for Union prisoners of war.  At least 257 Union soldiers died at this location. Facing disease and the advance of the Union Army, Confederate guards hastily buried the dead in an unmarked mass grave.  Most white residents abandoned the city and it was ironic that the first troops to enter and march up Meeting Street was the 21st U.S. Colored Infantry.

Days later, free black residents and former slaves walked to the mass grave and reburied the Union soldiers in proper graves. Erecting a marker and a small fence around the burial ground they built a memorial arch which read:  “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

On May 1, 1865, black Charlestonians, many former slaves, along with white missionaries and teachers and Union soldiers staged a parade to the race course.  They laid flowers on the graves, listened to speakers of both races, and picnicked on the grass.

This celebration has been called by many America’s first Memorial Day. After the war, the as the cemetery suffered neglect, the soldiers’ bodies were again exhumed and buried in 1871 in South Carolina’s national cemeteries at Beaufort and Florence.

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Interesting that this celebration conducted by former slaves honoring the Union soldiers who died for their freedom has been buried in history and credit for this day of remembrance goes to others.

I would never have known of this Memorial Day celebration had we not walked in that park so full of history

And there’s more history there – but that calls for another blog.