The African Americans

Search for Truth and Knowledge

By Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Jr.

Part Twenty-Six: African American Resistance—Rebellion Tradition South Carolina Rebellion Against Slavery

Denmark Vesey (1767–1822)

Denmark Vesey was born into slavery in 1767 as the property of Captain Vesey. He traveled as a slave with his master for twenty years, visiting the Virgin Islands and Haiti, which was an independent nation ruled by people of African descent. These trips to Haiti were destined to play an important part in his life. Both the trips to Haiti and his experiences under slavery helped shape his mission in life. Although he was lucky enough to win a lottery of $1,500 and purchased his own freedom for $600, he was not able to purchase his children after various attempts. These injustices increased his resolve to fight against slavery.

To prepare himself for the struggle against slavery, he became a Methodist Minister. This position allowed him to travel freely and meet many people. Most important of all, he was able to use his home as a regular meeting place. An elaborate plan was developed for more than a year involving many people. Arms were collected and made by a blacksmith so that they would be ready when it was time to strike. It is believed that hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves as well as free men were part of the plan. The objective was to burn Charleston, free the slaves in the area, take control of ships and then sail to freedom in Haiti. The plan was betrayed by one of the slaves and Denmark Vesey and others were executed.

Although his very elaborate slave rebellion failed, the very fact that it was conceived and planned and participated in by hundreds of slave and free African Americans was a shock to slave owners throughout the land. It was also a signal that rebellion against slavery was gaining momentum. As a result, those who controlled the slave system began to tighten the already oppressive machinery that had been built to keep in bondage millions of people of African descent. The response of the leaders of the oppressed African Americans, slave and free, was to increase the efforts to abolish slavery and struggle harder to obtain true freedom and equality.


Reverend Henry Highland Garnet and the Abolition Movement

A symbol of African American resistance and rebellion before the Civil War was the Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Henry Highland Garnet. He was born in slavery December 23, 1815 in Maryland but his father escaped to the North with his family when young Garnet was nine years old. The Garnets made their way to New York City where Henry was educated in the African Free Schools. He was fortunate to have as classmates Ira Aldridge who became famous as a Shakespearean actor in Europe and America, and Alexander Cromwell who became a renowned Episcopalian church leader and missionary to Liberia and West Africa.

In 1843 at the Negro Convention that met in Buffalo, N.Y., Reverend Henry Highland Garnet gave an arousing speech that called on the slaves to rise up and resist their oppression. He called for a slave general strike and massive resistance which inspired the delegates who came from ten states. One of the seventy delegates was Frederick Douglass who urged the convention to adopt a policy of moderation and passive resistance. (At that time he was under the influence of white abolitionists, such as William Lloyd Garrison who opposed radical action by the slaves themselves. Later in his career, he disagreed with them and also called for radical action.) Reverend Garnet almost won convention support. He missed endorsements by one vote. His speech is a classic example of struggle. He spoke directly to the slaves. He was following the Rebellion tradition of David Walker in 1829 and Nat Turner in 1831.

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