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Denmark Vesey Trial: 1822 - A Long Brewing Plot

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Vesey's plot developed over a five-year period. In 1817 he seized upon Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church as a means of organizing the insurrection. The church had over 4,000 members, both free black and slave, and it was remarkably free of white supervision. The literate Vesey taught Bible there. At his trial one witness testified that Vesey "studied the Bible a great deal, and tried to prove from it that slavery and bondage is against the Bible." Another slave described how Vesey "read to us from the Bible, how the children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage." Once, when a listener objected to Vesey's call for violence and genocide to redress the evil of slavery, he replied simply, "The Lord commanded it."

Vesey also appealed to non-Christian blacks with the help of slave Jack Pritchard. "Gullah Jack," as he was known in Charleston, had been born in Angola and was an Obeah-man or conjure man. Many in the black community believed he had the power to create charms that could protect the wearer against bullets. Gullah Jack was key in recruiting help for the plot among the Gullah population of Charleston and the neighboring islands.

By December 1821 Vesey had four main lieutenants. One was Ned Bennett, the trusted slave of South Carolina governor Thomas Bennett. Another was Rolla Bennett, who routinely took charge of the governor's household during his absences. Although Rolla later testified that "the governor treats me like a son," he was willing to murder the governor and his family. The third man, Monday Gell, "enjoyed all the substantial comforts of a free man." His master allowed him to keep a goodly portion of his earnings as a harness maker. The fourth lieutenant, Peter Poyas, was a ship's carpenter, who believed that "we are obliged to revolt."

By mid-1822, Ned Bennett was spreading the word in the country that Sunday, June 14 had been chosen for the uprising. Peter Poyas, Rolla Bennett, and Monday Gell were collecting and organizing armed companies among the AME congregation, and Gullah Jack alerted the islanders to prepare their boats and weapons for an attack on Charleston. The date was well chosen. Blacks were permitted to gather at the city market on Sundays with little supervision, and by mid-July many of the city's elite and militia members had left town to escape the heat.

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