This month in History’s Hidden Heroes, I’m writing about Denmark Vesey. Vesey is a character in The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. We are reading The Invention of Wings for Between the Lines Book Club. The character is loosely based on a real person, Denmark Vesey, born Telemaque, who planned a slave uprising in 1822.
Telemaque was born a slave, with the name Telemaque, in 1767 in St. Thomas. He was purchased by a sea captain whose last name was Vesey. Vesey eventually brought Telemaque to South Carolina. Telemaque won $1500 in a lottery in 1799. He bought himself, and took on the name Denmark Vesey. Vesey married a woman who was a slave. He attempted to buy his wife, but her owner would not sell her. This meant that all of Vesey’s children would be born into slavery, since by law they acquired the legal status of the mother.
Vesey started a congregation of the African Methodist Episopal Church. When the church was closed by city authorities, Vesey began planning a rebellion. Two slaves leaked the plot and Vesey was arrested, along with other suspects.
Vesey was hung on July 2, 1822. Records show that he was hung publicly, but folklore tells of him being hung alone, secretly, at an oak tree, and this is the story Kidd uses in The Invention of Wings. Kidd also perpetrates the legend that Vesey practiced polygamy although there’s little evidence to support this. How advanced the rebellion was remains a matter of historical controversy. However advanced Vesey’s plans were, he inarguably had a huge effect on slaveowners, slaves, and abolitionists. He remains a controversial figure today – revered because of his commitment to freedom, and condemned by some because of his willingness to use violence towards that end.