A Church Both African American and Reformed
ON THE AFTERNOON of May 30, 1822, a Charleston slave, after agonizing for days over rumors circulating on the docks and in the slave quarters, reported to his master what he had heard. Within two hours the plans for the largest slave revolt in U.S. history were revealed to city authorities. The leader of the revolt was Denmark Vesey, a member with his wife Susan of the Second Presbyterian Church. Born a slave in the West Indies, he had been brought to Charleston in 1783 as the personal servant of a Captain Vesey. In 1800 he won the handsome sum of $1,500 in the East Bay Street Lottery and was allowed by his owner to purchase his freedom for $600. Trained as a carpenter, he earned a living at his trade and built a reputation as a leader in the black community. In April 1817, he had joined the Second Presbyterian Church with two other "people of colour."1
Vesey hoped to bring together in one massive revolt the slaves of the city and those of the surrounding plantations. Acting in one coordinated assault on the whites, they hoped to seize the arsenals, set fire to the city, kill the whites as they rushed to fight the fire, and then sail to safety in Santo Domingo. They selected June as the month most likely for success, for many whites would be away from the city to escape the heat and the summer fevers.
When the plot was discovered, white military forces were organized under the command of Robert Young Hayne, and approximately 130 blacks were eventually arrested. George Warren Cross of the Huguenot Church represented Vesey and his chief lieutenant, Gullah Jack. Following secret trials, they were hanged with four others on July 2. A second trial followed with a court of six members including Hayne and Jacob Axson of the Circular Church and John Gordon of First ( Scots). They condemned another 22 to be hanged.2 John Adger, then a child, looked out of a third-floor window of his home and saw "a long gallows erected on 'The Lines,' and on it twenty-two negroes hanged at one time." The whole city, he later wrote, "turned out on this occasion, and this was certainly a sight calculated to strike terror into the heart of every slave."3