Denmark Vesey’s Family Legacy

This post is part of our forum on “The Significance of the Black Family in the US.”

Five generations on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, 1862 (Library of Congress)

In 1795, on a rice plantation in St. Bartholomew’s Parish, Colleton county, Lowcountry, South Carolina, thirty miles outside of Charleston, Hannah Morrison (1795 -1872) was born a free person of color (FPC) who identified as Black. It has been reported that 83 percent of Blacks in St. Bartholomew’s Parish in the early 1800s were newly arrived enslaved African captives. Hannah was the progeny of Robert Morrison (1776- 1821) and Octavia (1778-1820) an enslaved captive from the African Congo. Her father Robert Morrison, an Irish-Scottish rice plantation slaveholder whose sexual desire and racial aversion to Black women formed a plantation in 1820 that consisted of ten whites and fifteen (FPC) who identified as either mulatto or Black. Female African captives were engulfed in a sexually exploitative playground that provided pleasure for Robert and his brothers. These slaveholder’s purpose was to emancipate their offspring, typically female, from these African women to become servants. Hannah would become a byproduct of that environment. Sometime before 1804, Robert sold Octavia and she was then enslaved at the Combahee/Dalton rice plantation  where Margaret Young Stock (1759-1835) was the slaveholder. Eight miles away from the Morrison rice plantation Octavia met the enslaved Willie Gadsden (1778 – unknown) and gave birth to Binah Gadsden (1804-1869), who was enslaved. Despite Hannah Morrison and Binah Gadsden’s distinct condition and separation, these half sisters maintained a cohesive family bond. Both were non-literate all their life, yet they fostered relationships with whites as an adaptational response that allowed them to thrive in an anti-Black oppressive slave society. Hannah’s interpersonal experiences with Margaret Young Stock would magnify their successes.

In the Antebellum South of Charleston, Hannah’s documented attainments over her life span were exceptional for a free Black woman labeled by the Charleston Daily News in 1873 as “well-to-do(see article entitled “A Remarkable Will Case”). In 1825 she paid the $2.20 tax fee for being a FPC to avoid a delinquent tax bill that was punishable with enslavement. On May 10, 1828, Hannah removed an enslaved “certain Negro man” named Martin Nelson from slaveholder Margaret Young Stock for $700. She was in love and later married him before 1830, becoming Hannah Nelson. Hannah then paid Ann S. Smith, daughter of the deceased Margaret Stock $2,250 and removed her sister Binah Gadsden along with her sister’s children, Titus, Tom, Rosanna, Moses and Betsey on March 20, 1837. By 1840 Binah’s last child, Ann, was born and became the first literate family member.

Although the law in the state of South Carolina banned individuals from independently manumitting enslaved Blacks after 1820 without legislative approval, Hannah circumvented that law and freed her husband Martin, sister Binah, nieces, and nephew Titus. Years earlier Moses and Tom had died. They were all known to be FPC under Hannah’s rank and their status remained undetected by Charleston officials, who would have sold them back into slavery. Their family cohesiveness demonstrated their adaptational response which was a protective factor, in making meaning out of their suffering in the context of brutal racial oppression.

After Denmark Vesey’s failed 1822 slave revolt. Charleston whites became fearful that Blacks would attempt another slave revolt if they didn’t regulate and restrict them. By 1840, white officials implemented Black codes. These racially constructed economic, social, religious, and educational codes of constraint crippled those free Blacks and enslaved laborers. However, to cultivate her own and that of her family members’ sense of independence, Hannah in the same year purchased a plot of American soil on Bridge Street from William Gatewood for $600. Gatewood was a prominent financier in Charleston that migrated from Virginia. He was known for his lavish parties that he hosted at his home in Charleston for white aristocrats. The William Gatewood house is a 9,500 square feet “sideyard” house built in 1843 and it remains intact and is recognized as one of Charleston architectural gems. Hannah’s plot of land eventually became 52, 54, 56 and 58 Ashley Street and 56 Spring Street formerly Bridge Street Northeast corner sometime after 1848 when the city of Charleston implemented address numbering for buildings.

In April 1856 Hannah removed her nephew Titus’ wife, Phillis, and her mulatto child, Pender, from enslavement at Emma Gadsden’s estate sale for $700. In 1860 her husband Martin Nelson died, and three years later in the midst of the Civil War she remarried Robert Vesey Sr., the son of the abolitionist Denmark Vesey. Together they arranged their marriage settlement with Robert Gourdin, a pro-slavery advocate and lawyer that supported Black Charlestonians throughout the city with their business matters. A marriage settlement was a document that identified what a woman brought into her marriage. What made this marriage significant was that Blacks were outlawed from officially marrying until 1866 after the Freedmen’s Bureau set up the requirements for Black couples to officially be married. Yet, Hannah again sidestepped the law in collaboration with Gourdin. The marriage was officially recorded in September 1866.

After her sister Binah’s death in 1869, Hannah began to wonder who would ensure that her assets were transferred appropriately to her nieces and nephew upon her death. By 1870 Hannah’s second husband Robert Vesey Sr. died. During the early 1870’s she connected with a Black man who was appointed the first and only Charleston city auditor, Samuel L. Bennett. Eventually Hannah designated him as the executor of her will. After Hannah’s death on January 2, 1872, it was well known that her nieces and nephew would inherit her possessions. However, Rosanna Holmes, Titus Gadsden, Betsey Price, and Ann Matthews—relatives of Denmark Vesey—were dealt with an unfathomable blow during the probate hearing in January 1872. At Bennett’s office he presented them with the will, and according to the Charleston Daily News:

The will was read, but their lamentations turned to the astonishment and their white handkerchiefs were crammed back to the pockets of their alpaca sables when they found that to each of the nieces was given a life use of two rooms in a certain small shanty in Hasel Street and to the nephew the sum of twenty dollars in cash . . .

Outraged by the outcome, Ann filed a petition in Charleston probate court against Samuel L. Bennett for fraud, contesting that Hannah was non-literate, therefore it was impossible for her to have constructed this will or consented to its content. The family won the case in June 1872 and the heirs received Hannah’s property at 56 Spring street, which was the only property left after Hannah’s death because she sold all but one parcel of land over her lifespan. Bennett appealed the court ruling to the Supreme Court. In March 1873 the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the lower court ruling. The land was returned back to the relatives of Denmark Vesey.

In 1876 during the height of Jim-Crow segregation laws, the family members were deceived and fraudulently manipulated out of their heir’s property. The 1876 deed stated that Rosanna Holmes signed and received in hand the land conveyance along with her three siblings. Transferring the property that was sold to Thomas Garvin, a non-literate Irish laborer for $900. The problem was that Rosanna Holmes had died in November 1872, and her death certificate proved it. But after a lengthy legal court battle the relatives of Denmark Vesey lost their property.

The family legacy of Denmark Vesey is rooted in interpersonal relations, self-concept, transcendence, and critical consciousness. These factors buffered my ancestors from racial stigma that some Blacks internalized from white Charlestonians, which for them generated a pathway to their socioeconomic success pre and post Civil War. Yet, systemic structural racism’s growth and power in Charleston was too abundant to defeat. Jim Crow laws contributed to the dismantling of my ancestors’ economic power that had spanned over forty years, and I imagine there are many other Black families alike that experienced this pain. Today, working with Where is My Land and a legal team, I continue to pursue justice for my ancestors and demonstrate transgenerational struggles of injustice that have occurred in the US impacting Black individuals, couples, and families centuries later.

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Xavier Aubrey Spencer

Xavier Aubrey Spencer, IMFT, CST is a licensed independent marriage and family therapist (IMFT,) American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) Clinical fellow and certified sex therapist (CST) by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT). He has a private practice based in Northeast Ohio. He is the author of The Family Legacy of Denmark Vesey, a transgenerational true story of race, love, violence and perseverance in the American South. He studied Human Development at Pacific Oaks College and went on to receive his Master of Science in Marital and Family Therapy from Northwestern University, Center for Psychological and Family Studies at The Family Institute. Along with extensive clinical training at The Family Institute. Xavier holds a post-graduate certificate in Sex Therapy from University of Michigan Sexual Health Program. In graduate school, he was the recipient of the Minority Fellowship Award from AAMFT for his commitment and dedication to the professional practice of marriage and family therapy.

Comments on “Denmark Vesey’s Family Legacy

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    Oh my goodness! This was both powerful and sad all at the same time sir. Thank you for sharing this story. It made me think how important it is to educate ourselves about the transference of wealth, how we navigate white spaces for our advantage, as well as that of our family. Peace!

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      Thank you AJ. Yes, that sounds correct. The family’s ability to navigate white spaces for their growth was profound. While at the same time, maintaining a healthy self concept of their Blackness in the context of a slave society was powerful.

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    A very moving story. There is so much to learn–there is so much we may never know. However, this research is extraordinary. I would like to know a lot more about Octavia and Hannah–and all their generations. Thank you for this article and the living links. Keep on keepin’ on.

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      Thank you Blake. The Family Legacy of Denmark Vesey provides more details about the family members and their relationships. By the way, Octavia is my 5th great-grandmother and Binah is my 4th great-grandmother – her sister Hannah is my 4th great aunt. It’s an incredible historical find that is well documented. It has taken 12 years to piece it all together while considering what I learned from my relationship with my great grandmother.

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