The Mother Emanuel A.M.E. shooting tragedy in Charleston, S.C. was another in a long line of racially-fueled violence throughout history aimed at the Black church. Denmark Vesey, a former slave and organizer of a failed slave revolt in 1822, was a founding member of the church and his connection to recent events raises some questions.
Vesey was born a slave around 1767 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, then colonized by Denmark. Historians suggest he was called Telemaque by his owners, and was purchased when he was 14 by Bermudian merchant Joseph Vesey. Telemaque worked as an assistant to Vesey, and was fluent in English, Spanish and French. By the time he arrived in Charleston in the late 1700’s, he was able to read and write.
In 1799, Vesey, then 32, won $1,500 in the Charleston Lottery and purchased his freedom for $600. Taking his former master’s surname and using the colonizing nation of his birthplace for his first name, Denmark Vesey was born. Vesey worked as a carpenter, and married an enslaved woman. Their children, by way of the law at the time, were born into slavery.
Vesey was a member of the Second Presbyterian Church as were many of the slaves in town. The church was unwelcoming to Black attendees, and in 1818, Vesey he helped co-found an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston. The A.M.E. Church was founded by Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and others in Philadelphia, Pa. and was the first independent Black denomination in the nation.
The church attracted the unwelcome attention of whites in town, and the authorities ordered the church shuttered both in 1818 and 1821. There was a law in place that slaves couldn’t worship after sunset. Whites feared the large gatherings at the church as it was the second largest A.M.E. church in the United States at the time.
Inspired by the Haitian Slave Revolution of 1791, Vesey began planting the seeds of a slave uprising to take place July 14 of that year, which is also Bastille Day. Thousands of slaves were reportedly involved and informed, with Vesey largely leading this effort by himself with the help of a handful of sympathetic whites who were part of the church community.
Vesey hoped that the sheer number of slaves would be enough to slay the masters and liberate them all. However, two fearful slaves told their masters of Vesey’s plans and dozens of people in connection to the case were arrested between June 17 and June 28 of that year. The 17th was also the same day Dylann Roof entered Mother Emanuel and killed nine unarmed Black parishioners as they prayed.
Vesey and several others were hanged on July 2 of that year. The church, which served as a gathering place for organizers and church-goers alike, was set ablaze shortly after his hanging.
Emanuel AME was reestablished in 1865 and is affectionately known as Mother Emanuel.
The building, which has featured speakers such as Booker T. Washington and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was renovated in 2014.