More than 150 years ago, The Atlantic published a gripping account of a slave rebellion that was planned in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822. Our writer called it “the most elaborate insurrectionary project ever formed by American slaves.” Hundreds were involved. Had they not been betrayed in the eleventh hour they may well have taken the city. They were led by a charismatic carpenter named Denmark Vesey, a man who'd bought his own freedom years earlier with $600 from lottery winnings.
At Vesey’s trial, a judge expressed astonishment that a free man would risk everything. We get a clue to his thinking from one of his comrades, who quoted him as saying that he was “satisfied with his own condition, being free, but as all his children were slaves he wished to see what could be done for them.”
Our writer pursued this story because it had been deliberately forgotten. Though the incident took place less than 40 years before we published the piece, it had vanished completely from official histories because of what the writer called “a distaste”––among whites––“for the memory of the tale.” He wrote, "The official reports which told what slaves had once planned and dared have now come to be among the rarest of American historical documents.”