The Denmark Vesey conspiracy transformed how enslavers viewed free and unfree men who labored in the cities and countryside of Charleston, South Carolina. Significantly, enslaved and free Black women who labored as domestics, worked in the fields, and cooked for the men who were tried and convicted for conspiracy avoided suspicion in the conspiracy and were overlooked as co-conspirators. Artisans and laborers in the slave and free Black community of Charleston played a central role in planning the insurrection. Interrogating the role of enslaved and free Black women in Charleston and the surrounding areas underscores the ways by which Black women aided and abetted slave conspiracies and revolts.
In examining the role of Black women and Vesey’s motive for the insurrection, it is essential to ask, how did the fact that at least two of Vesey’s wives and several of his children remained enslaved influence his decision to launch a revolt against the institution of slavery? If Vesey confided in his wives as he planned the revolt, how can we begin to interrogate their role and the role of other wives and mothers in the conspiracy?
Freedom as an ideal and as praxis lived in the hearts and minds of enslaved women. According to historian Dr. Vanessa Holden, “African American women were involved in an active and constant culture of resistance among Black people. Their persistent everyday resistance positioned them within their communities to participate in moments of violent revolt” (8). Slave rebellions and rumors of slave rebellions illuminate the networks enslaved women created in support of slave insurgency. In the 1712 slave conspiracy in New York City, the main arsonist were allegedly women. In 1774, four enslaved women in Georgia conspired with six enslaved men to kill their enslaver and an overseer. In Gabriel Prosser’s Rebellion, Gabriel’s wife Nanny was involved in the planning. Denmark Vesey reportedly had relationships with multiple women, and he had at least three wives over the course of his life. Indeed, after Charleston’s white officials had uncovered the conspiracy plot, and after the alleged starting date of Sunday, June 16 had passed without an uprising, Vesey remained in Charleston, where he was “secreted in the house of one of his wives, according to a sketch of Vesey’s life.”1 Six days later, during a severe storm, he was arrested.
The fact that no women were executed for conspiracy should not negate the presence of enslaved women and free Black women as co-conspirators in the conspiracy. By maintaining a culture of silence regarding the conspiracy and its afterlife, the wives and daughters created an environment that was conducive to subversive actions. The official report of Vesey’s conspiracy is full of silences and unanswered questions.
The men who formed the nucleus of Vesey’s conspiracy—Ned, Rolla, Peter, Gullah Jack, and Monday Ghell—met in shops during the day and at each other’s homes at night. According to historian Douglas Egerton, the wives of these leading men were likely aware of the conspiracy. Furthermore, the men were recruited from the countryside to rally those on plantations. It is inconceivable that enslaved women would not have heard of the planned conspiracy within the slave community. From the official report of the conspiracy, we know that Vesey made recruiting trips into the countryside as far north as South Santee and southward from Charleston, some 70 to 80 miles from the city. The men had also gained the support of enslaved people from at least four nearby plantations. The men who conspired to insurrection were members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church under the leadership of Bishop Morris Brown. From the official report, we know that according to the witnesses, the entire African Church was aware of the planned insurrection.
Each co-conspirator recruited participants from specific areas and neighborhoods. Co-conspirator Peter was recruited from the South Bay neighborhood where he lived. Except for Rolla and Monday Ghell, who confessed and gave testimony, none of those arrested and tried belonged to the companies recruited by Vesey, Peter, Ned, and Gullah Jack.2 An indication that the secrecy compelled by the leaders amongst the participants remained in the afterlife of the conspiracy.
Vesey and his men reportedly burned the papers detailing the conspiracy as soon as they heard the plot had been discovered. From the official report of the planned insurrection, there is an indication of the process by which enslaved women and men from the countryside would make their way to Charleston on Sunday, June 16th, the day of the insurrection. Many plantation women, under the task labor system, traveled to urban markets on Sundays to sell eggs, poultry, and crops produced in the internal slave economy during the free time the system permitted. As in Africa and the Caribbean, the important role played by Black women in the Charleston markets “enabled the creation of networks between rural and urban enslaved women and encouraged a Black female forum on current events” (31). According to the official report, “canoes of various sizes…would have afforded conveyance” for slaves to bring goods and stock to the Charleston market. Vesey believed that Sunday would offer the best chance for the insurrection since, on Sundays, enslaved people from the countryside came into Charleston without being particularly noticed.
The importance of women and children in the lives of the leaders of the planned insurrection cannot be overstated. According to one of the witnesses at the trial, Denmark Vesey was motivated to plan and launch the insurrection because he had several children enslaved, and “he wished to see them free.” Monday Ghell made this same statement in his confession. Co-conspirator Peter Poyas, a slave who worked as a ship’s carpenter and who had the trust and confidence of his enslaver, had a wife and several children who were enslaved and whom he requested to see before his execution.
Enslaved women were well aware of the plot and maintained a culture of silence in support of the insurrection, as evidenced by the testimony of Sally, who testified that she heard Jesse, whose brother was married to her mother, “speak about it several times.” Sally had also informed others that Jesse had “set off for the country” to inform the people to go to town on Sunday, June 16th, but was stopped by slave patrols.
Enslaved women who are referenced in the official report of the insurrection were the wives, daughters, daughters-in-law, and friends of the conspirators. Sarah, whose mother Beck was married to Denmark Vesey, served as Vesey’s cook providing meals to Vesey and was very likely his co-conspirator as they met at Vesey’s home. Although Beck and Vesey had been separated for some time, Vesey visited her at her house and, according to witness William, often spoke of the uprising. That Black women were well aware of the planned insurrection and were silent co-conspirators is further adduced by witness Edwin who stated that he “heard everybody, including the women,” wonder why Denmark Vesey and Monday Ghell were not immediately taken up when authorities learned of the conspiracy. Vesey’s other wives, Dolly and Susan (who was free), likely had knowledge of the planned insurrection as Vesey’s friend Bacchus testified that Susan and other women were frequently at Denmark Vesey’s house, where they took in ironing and laundry.3 Although Vesey, according to Douglas Egerton, discouraged his officers from recruiting women, women still learned of the plot and maintained a culture of silence regarding the plot.
As historian Dr. Ann Kerth has articulated, conspiracies need privacy, mobility, and trust to grow and thrive. As wives, daughters, daughters-in-law, and friends, Black women provided or facilitated each of these qualities. If we read into the silences, we find that women carefully thought about their actions, did not divulge any secrets, and devised strategies and tactics that allowed the planned insurrection to advance before it was ultimately discovered. If labor served as one of the primary sources of evidence to accuse and convict the men in Vesey’s conspiracy—a culture of silence among Black women saved lives.
- Robert L. Paquette, “From Rebellion to Revisionism: The Continuing Debate about the Denmark Vesey Affair, The Journal of the Historical Society vol. 4 no. 3 (Fall 2004): 311; John Oliver Killens, The Trial Record of Denmark Vesey (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970), 161. ↩
- Lionel Kennedy and Thomas Parker, An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, Charged with an Attempt to Raise An Insurrection in the State of South Carolina (Charleston, S.C.: James R. Schenck, 1822), 16. ↩
- Douglass Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Many Lives of Denmark Vesey (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 81. ↩