The ‘African Church’ and Black Resistance in Antebellum Charleston

Update: An edited version of this article has been cross-posted at We’re History

Last night, Dylann Storm Roof murdered nine people in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in an act of white supremacist terror, once again introducing violence into a church with deep roots in the history of Charleston. Founded in 1818 as the first A.M.E. Church in the South and one of the largest black Methodist congregations in the country at the time, the church served as a symbol of black resistance to white supremacy from the moment of its founding. As such, it almost immediately drew the ire of white Charleston. As many have observed over the past twenty-four hours, the church’s revolutionary potential was realized in 1822, when it became implicated in the insurrection scheme planned by a free black man named Denmark Vesey. The very founding and existence of the church, however, was in itself a revolutionary and rebellious act.

Richard Allen founded the United States’ first African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. Two years later, after disputes with the city’s Methodist church over church funds and its burial ground, black Charlestonians sought to form their own independent black church. In 1818, after being ordained in Philadelphia, a free black man named Morris Brown founded Charleston’s “African Church,”—it wasn’t until after the Civil War that it became known as Emanuel A.M.E. Over 4,000 black Charlestonians subsequently joined, making the African Church not only the oldest independent black congregation south of Maryland, but the largest A.M.E. Church outside of Philadelphia. During the era of the slave trade, 2 of every 5 enslaved people imported into the United States came through the port of Charleston, and at the time of the African Church’s founding enslaved people constituted 70% of Charleston County’s population. In a city and region so deeply invested in the slave system, defying white authority and establishing an independent black church in that space and environment was a revolutionary act.

One of the aspects of the African Church that made it a truly unique institution in black Charleston was its ability to bring together people of African descent from different backgrounds. Charleston’s black community was often divided along class, color, and status lines, as free people of color tried to distance themselves from slavery, people of mixed racial ancestry tried to derive advantage from their lighter complexions, and skilled artisans and business owners strove to increase social distance between themselves and unskilled free and enslaved laborers. The African Church’s congregation blurred the lines dividing black Charlestonians, perhaps fostering a sense of common, racial identity that may not have existed elsewhere in the city.

White authorities in the city feared the church’s revolutionary potential, and almost immediately began enacting measures to counteract it. From the moment of its founding, the African Church had to deal with regular and persistent harassment from whites and from Charleston authorities. Charleston’s city guard arrested 140 members and ministers in June 1818, including founder Morris Brown, for violating the states prohibition on educating slaves. Each of the ministers arrested were encouraged to leave the state, but offered the opportunity to pay fines or face imprisonment. Morris Brown chose prison and stayed in Charleston.[1]

Two years later in 1820, a group of prominent white Charlestonians petitioned the state legislature to express their continued concern about the presence of an independent black church in the city. The petitioners called the legislature’s attention to the “evils” they felt the African Church represented. These men pointed to the “spacious building that has lately been erected in the immediate neighborhood of Charleston for the exclusive ownership of negroes and colored people, from means supplied to them by abolition societies.” The gathering of an all black congregation was a self-evident evil, one made all the more concerning by the congregants alleged affiliation with northern abolitionists. Whites feared the possibilities of free and enslaved blacks meeting together outside the supervision and control of whites. Not only did these petitioners want to prevent this black congregation from meeting, they sought to specifically prohibit “free negroes and colored people” from visiting “the eastern states for ordination and other religious pretences and again returning.”[2] White Charlestonians felt they needed to actively prevent the independent worship free and enslaved blacks.

In 1822, whites’ worst fears about the insurrectionary possibility of the African Church came to fruition in the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, a plot that deeply implicated the African Church.[3] Many of the accused leaders of the conspiracy played active roles in the church, with some, like Vesey, serving as class leaders. The authors of the published Official Report of the plot condemned the African Church in no uncertain terms, placing blame squarely on the church for fostering an environment in which the seed of such an insurrection could grow. They decried its “inflammatory and insurrectionary doctrines.” The Report accused the church of instilling “perverted religion and fanaticism” in its congregants.[4] Many of the slave witnesses implicated the African Church as well, though certainly under pressure (if not torture) from their white interrogators, whose views towards the church would have been well known. An enslaved man named William Paul, in his testimony against one of the conspirators, claimed to have been told that “all those belonging to the African Church are engaged in the insurrection.”

Another published account of the proceedings that followed the plot’s discovery argued that “religious fanaticism has not been without its effect on this project,” and that “the secession of a large body of blacks from the white Methodist church, with feelings of irritation and disappointment, formed a hot bed” which gave “life and vigor” to insurrectionary ideas. It continued, noting “Among the conspirators, a majority of them belonged to the African Church and among those executed were several who had been class leaders.”[5] In the immediate aftermath of the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, Charleston authorities directly tied the insurrectionary activity to the African Church. By all accounts, the Vesey conspiracy would not have been possible without the independent space and inspiration the African Church provided.

Denmark Vesey also allegedly used his knowledge of the bible to denounce the slave system and recruit other slaves and free people of color to his insurrectionary plot. The Official Report accused Vesey of having “rendered himself familiar with all those parts of the scriptures, which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God.” Benjamin Ford, a white Charleston resident aged 15 or 16, told the court that when Vesey came into his family’s shop, that he would readily discuss the hardships faced by blacks. Further, Ford claimed “his general conversation was about religion which he would apply to slavery,” and that “all his religious remarks were mingled with slavery.”[6] Vesey, an active member of the African Church with experience with and exposure to the political and ideological currents of the Atlantic World, espoused radical religious views and was, according to the witnesses who cooperated with white authorities, unafraid to share them with any who would listen.

Deeply implicated in the Denmark Vesey insurrection conspiracy, the African Church was burned by whites when its role in the affair became clear. Though congregants attempted to re-established the church, the state would officially outlaw independent black churches and schools in 1834. Black congregants continued to meet, often in secret, through the rest of the antebellum era. Like in many southern communities, the church was one of the first things to be re-established in the wake of the Civil War and abolition.

Though the veracity of the details of the Vesey conspiracy remain contested, they begin to reveal the ways the African Church specifically and religion more broadly played a role in the 1822 insurrection plot and in the lives of black Charlestonians. Many of the accused conspirators played active roles in the church. Beyond that, the African Church could have facilitated the planning of the conspiracy and fostered a sense of racial solidarity by bringing together members of Charleston’s black community across class, color, and status lines. The church may have even instilled in some black Charlestonians, both free and enslaved, a sense of religious duty to revolt against the slave system. At the most basic level, free and enslaved blacks leaving a white controlled congregation in 1818 to form an independent black church in the heart of the South Carolina lowcountry and the slave South represents an inherently rebellious act. From the moment of its founding, Charleston’s African Church was a site of protest, rebellion, and revolutionary possibility. It was perhaps this status as a site of black independence and rebellion that made Emanuel A.M.E. a target, and the murder of 9 people there continues a long history of white violence.

For further reading see:

Bernard E. Powers Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885.

Michael P. Johnson and James L. Roark, Black Masters: A Free Family of Color in the Old South

Douglar R. Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey

Amrita Chakrabarti Myers, Forging Freedom: Black Women and the Pursuit of Liberty in the Antebellum Charleston

[1] Bernard E. Powers, Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885, 21.

[2] “Petition advocating a curtailment of certain rights granted to free blacks, persons of color and slaves,” October 16, 1820, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Legislative Papers, 1782–1866, Petitions to the General Assembly (Series S165015), Roll 1344, No. 143, 703–10.

[3] One of the most well-known insurrection plots in American history, the Vesey conspiracy deeply implicated the African Church. The details Denmark Vesey affair—in fact, the existence of a conspiracy at all—is deeply contested and controversial. Nearly all the details we have about the Vesey conspiracy come from the ensuing trials and the heavily coerced testimony of enslaved people pressured by white authorities and likely attempting to save their own lives. Michael Johnson has suggested that many of the details that emerged through these coerced confessions reveal more about the racial anxieties of white Charlestonians than they do about the alleged insurrection plot. Nevertheless, as other scholars have argued, we must be able to glean something from such an unusually detailed record of black Charleston. The Vesey affair and its related documentary trove, however imperfect and contested, reveal a great deal about the revolutionary nature of the African Church and white concerns about black freedom during the early nineteenth century. See: Michael P. Johnson, “Denmark Vesey and his Co-Conspirators,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 4 (Oct. 2001), 915–976. See also the articles in “Forum: Making of a Slave Conspiracy, Part 2,” William and Mary Quarterly, Vol 59, No. 1 (Jan. 2002).

[4] An official report of the trials of sundry Negroes, Charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the State of South Carolina (Charleston, 1822), 23. A transcription caa be found here:

[5] James Hamilton, Negro Plot: An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection among a Portion of the Blacks of the City of Charleston, South Carolina (Charleston, 1822), 31. An electronic version can be found here:

[6] Official Report, 17–18; 89.

“Enslavement Narratives” vs. “Freedom Narratives” in Antebellum America

Alabama Daily Confederation, October 5, 1858

Alabama Daily Confederation, October 5, 1858

With the release of Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave, historians, journalists, and others have begun to offer insights online and in print on slavery and freedom in antebellum America. In particular, significant attention has been paid to “slave narratives” like that of Solomon Northup. Such discussions about slave narratives published in the antebellum North have led me to think about the connections between these stories and tales of voluntary enslavement from the antebellum South (for the sake of clarity, I will use the term “freedom narrative” when discussing stories published by former slaves about their life in and escape from slavery; I will use “enslavement narrative” when discussing stories of voluntary enslavement)[1]. Though these stories have received far less attention from historians, their structure and the timing of their publications seem particularly germane to some of these recent explorations of slavery and freedom.

In an excellent recent post on the Oxford University Press Blog, Mitch Kachun discusses how stories like Northup’s were particularly popular in the years leading up to the Civil War, often selling tens of thousands of copies. He also notes that some contemporaries doubted blacks’ abilities to write these narratives, suspecting they were in fact written by white abolitionists. Though some of this skepticism survived into the twentieth century (as well as a recent New York Times article), Kachun emphasizes that “a half century of intensive research has convinced most literary and historical scholars today of the general accuracy and authority of their stories.”

While these freedom narratives have proved to be largely factual, it is nevertheless true (as Kachun notes) that abolitionists played crucial roles in getting these stories published and popularized. In addition, once published, freedom narratives were crucial tools for abolitionists, providing first hand accounts of the horrors of slavery. Supporters of slavery, of course, denied the accuracy of these freedom narratives and defended the institution as benign, civilizing, and of greater service to blacks than the free labor system. I would like to suggest, however, that not only did proslavery advocates deny the accuracy of freedom narratives, they appear to have attempted to provide a contrasting view through the publication of voluntary enslavement stories in southern newspapers. Continue reading

Pedro Romero, Race, and Respectability in Cartagena

For a few blocks near the Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad in the Getsemaní neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia, the legend of Pedro Romero lives. On the streets surrounding the plaza and its church, elaborate works of street art adorn the walls paying tribute to Pedro Romero, the hero of Cartagena’s independence movement for the people of Getsemaní.

Statue of Pedro Romero dedicated to the "Lanceros de Getsemaní"

Statue of Pedro Romero dedicated to the “Lanceros de Getsemaní”

Born in Matanzas, Cuba in the 1740s, Pedro Romero was a free man of color, likely of mixed African and European descent. Though little is known of Romero’s early life, he worked as a gunsmith and master blacksmith in Cartagena’s arsenal in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and also ran a foundry at the entrance to the barrio of Getsemaní, home to the many of Cartagena’s slaves and free people of color.

In 1810, José Ignacio de Pombo described Romero and his son by stating “We have in the master Pedro Romero, and his son Stephen, two intelligent artists in this profession [Blacksmithing], or better yet, two intelligent men that the force of their genius…has elevated to a degree of perfection and delicacy that is truly admirable.”[1] As an artisan, Romero had significant contact with Cartagena’s white creole and Spanish elite (particularly in the form of military contracts), allowing him to establish a reputation for himself in Cartagena as a respectable pardo. Continue reading

Research Update

Since my last post, I’ve begun my dissertation research in earnest, which is why I’ve been off the grid for a good while in terms of this blog. For those of you who don’t known, my dissertation explores the ways that free people of color in the urban Atlantic World engaged a common discourse on race, freedom, and respectability—and developed what can be viewed as a “pan-American” protest strategy—carving out a place for themselves within their communities and nations against a broadly similar ideology of white supremacy, one that viewed the mobilization and civic participation of people of African descent as a destabilizing influence. To get at such an expansive theme, I am comparing the lives and experiences of free people of color in two port cities of the Greater Caribbean: Charleston, South Carolina, and Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

Having already spent a few weeks researching in Charleston, I spent the majority of April and May conducting researching in Columbia, South Carolina, primarily at the SC Department of Archives and History, but also at the South Caroliniana Library on the University of South Carolina campus. I was quite disappointed to discover that the records of the Court of Magistrates and Freeholders for Charleston (where free blacks would have been tried) no longer exist, but I was able to find a great deal in legislative and court petitions, various legal documents, tax records, and other municipal records. In addition, the papers and records of various free black voluntary associations in Charleston have been particularly helpful.

At the end of June, I relocated to Bogotá, Colombia, where I’ll be living for the entire Fall 2013 semester. I’ve begun researching at the Archivo General de la Nación, where most of the documents for the late colonial and early republic period are housed. I’ve been working through early census returns so far, but plan to move on to criminal and civil court records, military and militia records, and a variety of other sources soon. I’ve also enrolled as an external graduate student at the  Universidad de los Andes, which will be my academic “home-base” while living in Colombia.

So that’s kind of what’s going on with me right now. I’ve made a lot of progress researching, but am still in the process (obviously) of really working through it all and putting it together. I hope over the next few months to provide more regular, and more substantive, updates on what I’m finding. One will certainly be coming this week, so stay tuned.

40 Million Dollar Slaves with Bomani Jones

This entry is cross-posted from the official Race Scholars at Rice Blog

Last week, Race Scholars at Rice held our bi-annual “Dialogue Partners” event, where we discussed William C. Rhoden’s 2006 book 40 Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete. This session of Dialogue Partners was unique, as we for the first time had an outside expert join in our discussion. Bomani Jones, a writer and media personality who frequently addresses issues of race and culture in the sporting world, was kind enough to video chat with the group as we addressed Rhoden’s argument and discussed the issues raised in the book.

In the book, Rhoden argues that from the time sports were introduced to plantations in the antebellum South through the present, black athletes have been exploited and denied a place within the power structure of American athletics. Whenever black athletes are perceived to have gained too much power or to pose a threat to white cultural values, the rules are changed to detriment of blacks. In essence, the rules of modern athletics are rigged against black athletes to ensure that they are barred from positions of power.

Much of our discussion focused on the collegiate athletics system, and how it functions to the detriment of black athletes. One participant asked Bomani if he could discuss how college athletics reflects the “plantation” model that Rhoden describes. Bomani argued that in addition to not being paid for their efforts, the playing field remains the only aspect of college athletics that have been integrated. Coaches, administrators, the press, and the fans, all remain largely dominated by whites.

One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation for me, was the idea that perhaps Rhoden adhered to strictly to a black-white binary. Major League Baseball, for instance, utilizes a “conveyor belt” system to cheaply cultivate Latin American talent in a manner largely similar to the way the NFL and NBA lure black players from the inner city, with a similar disregard for the well being of athletes (see, for example, <a href=""the death of Washington Nationals’ prospect Yewri Guillén)

An aspect of Rhoden’s book that I thought didn’t really get enough attention during our discussion (not that the discussion of athlete exploitation couldn’t have lasted far longer by itself) is the unwillingness of prominent black athletes to speak out about racism and other social issues. While Rhoden may be kinder to historical actors than he is to present-day athletes, I agree with Rhoden that it seems to be a problem that black athletes don’t use their prominent public roles to take stronger stances on issues of social justice.

Nevertheless, the conversation was extremely enlightening for both sports fans and non-sports fans, and was, at least to me, one of the most interesting and successful Dialogue Partners to date. You can find the full video of our discussion on YouTube here:

Digital Humanities Grad Student Roundtable

This week at Rice, as part of our ongoing Digital History Masterclass, we did a Google Hangout with Cameron Blevins, Jeri Wieringa, and Annie Swofford, to discuss some of the limits and possibilities of doing digital humanities work as a graduate student, and where we see digital humanities going in the future. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to class or check in to the hangout because I was attending my grandmother’s surprise 90th birthday party/family reunion (I swear to god that’s a real excuse), but Caleb thankfully has made the video of the hangout available here.

The conversation as a whole was really interesting, and it’s always nice to get perspectives from different people, and especially fellow graduate students. I thought the discussion of the future of publishing was particularly interesting. This has come up in previous classes, but I continue to be intrigued by the idea of a “digital dissertation,” and when/if/how such a project would gain the same type of acceptance (if that’s the right word) as a traditional dissertation. The project also made me think about the ways traditional presses could move into promoting these types of projects. It seems to me that if a project was hosted on the website of a university press, it would have a bit more cred than just hosting a digital project on my personal website.

I have also been thinking about the ways that adding a digital component to a traditional piece of scholarship can broaden the exposure it gets, particularly in the undergraduate classroom. For example, I would say that I would be far more likely to assign Emma Rothschild’s The Inner Life of Empire now that the Harvard Digital History Lab has created this fantastic digital project that can accompany it. Finding a way to pare down my dissertation or first book into a relatively accessible web project like this seems like a fantastic idea. Making something like that available for free I think increases the likelihood people will read and become interested in your work.

I also thought it was interesting, and pretty clear, the ways that greater institutional support for digital humanities makes a huge difference. All three of these students have resources available to them that are not available, or at least not in any centralized way, at Rice, and they all seem to have benefitted from them immensely. Outside of this class and twitter, it has been tough for me to remain as engaged with digital methods as I’d like to be, which of course is a problem with self-motivation. One of the great things about digital humanities though is the way it is collaborative in a way that more traditional humanities scholarship rarely is. In disciplines outside the humanities, co-authorship and collaboration is the norm, and hopefully digital humanities is a way of getting scholars to work together more often, both for traditional and non-traditional projects.

Hearing about the exciting projects that people are engaged in and the opportunities it opens for them has once again re-energized me, so hopefully that will bring me back to my blog more often, as I continue thinking about how DH can/will impact my own scholarship. But no promises.

Organizing Research

If you started your dissertation or book project again tomorrow, from the beginning, how would you organize your research?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. Time and again, historians and other scholars come in to speak about their research, and offer some type of lament about the way they began organizing their research when they started their project x number of years ago.  Whether their research is in some form that is inefficient to access, or they had to spend hours converting crappyprogram files to lesscrappyprogram files, I have heard from a number of different scholars over the last few years about how they wouldn’t organize their research if they did it again, or mistakes they will avoid for their next project.

No matter how much I think about this problem, though, I still can’t seem to come to a solution that I really like. For about the past year or so, I’ve been using Evernote, and really enjoying it.  Aside from being the perfect program for studying for comps, it seems to work really well for seminar paper-sized research projects, where I can have to notebooks, one for primary and one for secondary sources, within a larger “notebook stack” for that research project.  I’m not sure, however, that this is the best way to organize my research for a project as large as a dissertation.  Since I’m only now beginning my dissertation research, I really want to organize things in a way that I’m not going to hate 2 years from now (or 6 months from now).

In trying to use Evernote for the preliminary dissertation research, I’m creating new notebooks for every archive I visit, and then separating each collection I view into a different note, but the notes have become somewhat unwieldy doing it that way.  I feel like I need stacks of notebook stacks, but that kind of seems like it’s getting ridiculous, and that perhaps there’s a better way. The other major problem with Evernote is the way it organizes photos, which I’ll probably end up having a lot of, due to limited archive time.

So how did you, or how would you, organize your research for a dissertation or book project if you were starting today? Any suggestions, digital tools, other blog posts about this subject, are very much welcome. I realize that to a certain extent, every project is different, and should be organized in a different way, based on the types of sources involved (for what it’s worth, I’ll be accessing a lot of legal records, will have a lot of document photographs, and will also probably have to do a good deal of transcription). But I think to a certain extent, all projects of this size probably across similar problems in terms of research organization.