The Missing Black Women in Denmark Vesey's RebellionRoundup
tags: slavery, African American history, slave revolts, Denmark Vesey
Karen Cook Bell is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History and Government at Bowie State University and author of Running from Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021). Follow her on Twitter @kbphd08.
The Denmark Vesey conspiracy transformed how enslavers viewed free and unfree men who labored in the cities and countryside of Charleston, South Carolina. Significantly, enslaved and free Black women who labored as domestics, worked in the fields, and cooked for the men who were tried and convicted for conspiracy avoided suspicion in the conspiracy and were overlooked as co-conspirators. Artisans and laborers in the slave and free Black community of Charleston played a central role in planning the insurrection. Interrogating the role of enslaved and free Black women in Charleston and the surrounding areas underscores the ways by which Black women aided and abetted slave conspiracies and revolts.
In examining the role of Black women and Vesey’s motive for the insurrection, it is essential to ask, how did the fact that at least two of Vesey’s wives and several of his children remained enslaved influence his decision to launch a revolt against the institution of slavery? If Vesey confided in his wives as he planned the revolt, how can we begin to interrogate their role and the role of other wives and mothers in the conspiracy?
Freedom as an ideal and as praxis lived in the hearts and minds of enslaved women. According to historian Dr. Vanessa Holden, “African American women were involved in an active and constant culture of resistance among Black people. Their persistent everyday resistance positioned them within their communities to participate in moments of violent revolt” (8). Slave rebellions and rumors of slave rebellions illuminate the networks enslaved women created in support of slave insurgency. In the 1712 slave conspiracy in New York City, the main arsonist were allegedly women. In 1774, four enslaved women in Georgia conspired with six enslaved men to kill their enslaver and an overseer. In Gabriel Prosser’s Rebellion, Gabriel’s wife Nanny was involved in the planning. Denmark Vesey reportedly had relationships with multiple women, and he had at least three wives over the course of his life. Indeed, after Charleston’s white officials had uncovered the conspiracy plot, and after the alleged starting date of Sunday, June 16 had passed without an uprising, Vesey remained in Charleston, where he was “secreted in the house of one of his wives, according to a sketch of Vesey’s life.”1 Six days later, during a severe storm, he was arrested.
The fact that no women were executed for conspiracy should not negate the presence of enslaved women and free Black women as co-conspirators in the conspiracy. By maintaining a culture of silence regarding the conspiracy and its afterlife, the wives and daughters created an environment that was conducive to subversive actions. The official report of Vesey’s conspiracy is full of silences and unanswered questions.