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Denmark Vesey's Rebellion Lesson Plan
Overview
The narrative Caribbean Immigration highlights distinguished Afro-Caribbean migrants to the United States, including Denmark Vesey, who was executed in 1822 for plotting a broad-based slave rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina. Denmark Vesey's Rebellion is a lesson plan that enables students to conduct research to learn about Denmark Vesey's extraordinary life. Students will use their findings from the historical record as the basis for a ten-minute dramatic performance (live skit or video production) of some aspect of Denmark Vesey's story.
Grade Levels:High school, grades 9-12
For use with:Caribbean Immigration
Concentration Area:History
National Curriculum Standards met by this lesson
The following standards have been taken from the Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel) standards.
Students will understand

  • Different economic, cultural, and social characteristics of slavery after 1800 (e.g., the influence of the Haitian Revolution and the ending of the Atlantic slave trade, how slaves forged their own culture in the face of oppression, the role of the plantation system in shaping slaveholders and the enslaved, the experiences of escaped slaves).
  • How slavery shaped social and economic life in the South after 1800 (e.g., how the cotton gin and the opening of new lands in the South and West led to increased demands for slaves; differences in the lives of plantation owners, poor free black and white families, and slaves; methods of passive and active resistance to slavery; escaped slaves and the Underground Railroad).
  • How slavery influenced economic and social elements of southern society (e.g., how slavery hindered the emergence of capitalist institutions and values, the influence of slavery on the development of the middle class, the influence of slave revolts on the lives of slaves and freed slaves).
Time required
One to two 50-minute class periods provided that students do research and most planning outside of class, and depending on the speed of the performances
Materials needed
  • Narrative, Caribbean Immigration
  • Primary sources on the rebellion, An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection 10-001 BT and An Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes 10-001 CT
  • Other sources
Anticipatory Set

  1. Ask students if they have ever heard of Denmark Vesey. Tell them that, in 2002, the city of Charleston, South Carolina decided to approve a monument in his honor.
  2. Direct students to read the narrative Caribbean Immigration, focusing on the section " "Phases of the Migration," " to learn the source of Denmark Vesey's fame.
  3. Explain to students that slave rebellions have provided creative minds with compelling stories that they may dramatize. William Styron's novel The Confession of Nat Turner (1968) won the Pulitzer Prize. Debbie Allen and Stephen Spielberg dramatized the slave ship revolt in the critically-acclaimed movie Amistad (1997). Night of the Silent Drums by John L. Anderson (1975) explored the little known but lengthy revolt in 1733 by enslaved people on St. John in the Danish Virgin Islands.
  4. Ask students what sources, primary and secondary, might provide them with additional material so they could dramatize Denmark Vesey's life or planned rebellion.
Procedures

  1. Explain to students that they will be researching Denmark Vesey's history, and that, using the information they have located, they will create and perform a ten-minute dramatic account based on some aspect of Vesey's life, as follows:

    1. Explain that each performance group will need to create an annotated bibliography. The bibliography should include citations of sources upon which the performance is based and an annotation indicating what the source contributed to the performance.
    2. Encourage students to select pivotal moments in the story of Denmark Vesey rather than attempting to compress his entire biography into ten minutes.
    3. Caution students that they are trying to create a plausible historical account, not a purely fictional piece, and that they will be evaluated not only on their performance but also on whether they have based their drama on historical accounts.
  2. Remind students that they will need to be conscious of the number of characters that will appear together at any one time, since it cannot exceed the number of students in the group (unless they are taping the performance). In addition to 55-year-old Denmark Vesey himself, who may have originally been called Telemaque (after a character in Homer's Odyssey), students may wish to include some of the following figures in their research or script:

    1. Captain Joseph Vesey, long-time owner of Denmark Vesey
    2. Batteau, Ned and Rolla Bennett, men belonging to the governor of South Carolina (Rolla Bennett was allegedly to lead the attack on the federal arsenal); all three were hanged on July 2
    3. Thomas Bennett, governor of South Carolina.
    4. James Hamilton, Jr., mayor of Charleston
    5. Morris Brown, founder of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston
    6. Bacchus Hammett, worker in a harness shop who allegedly stole a keg of gunpowder, and was hanged
    7. Lot Forrester, an alleged rebellion recruit who stole a fuse for the gunpowder, and was hanged
    8. Jack Purcell, an alleged organizer with Vesey, who was hanged
    9. Joe LaRoche, an alleged organizer with Vesey who turned state's evidence
    10. Peter Poyas, a ship's carpenter, who allegedly was to lead the attack on the state arsenal, and was hanged July 2
    11. Gullah Jack Pritchard, a religious leader from Africa, who allegedly helped organize the planned rebellion; he was hanged without trial
    12. Monday Gell, Igbo origin (Nigeria), a harness-maker who allegedly sought support from the president of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) for the rebellion; Gell turned state's witness and testified in 37 trials earning a commutation from his death sentence
    13. George Wilson (blacksmith and a class leader at Emanuel AME), enslaved man who allegedly informed owner about the planned rebellion
    14. Peter Prioleau (Pierault), house slave who allegedly informed owner John Prioleau about the planned rebellion
    15. Mingo Harth, a mechanic and alleged rebellion recruit, who was hanged
    16. Jesse Blackwood, a Baptist minister and alleged organizer of the rebellion; he was hanged July 2
    17. Tom Russell, blacksmith belonging to Sara Russell who allegedly prepared pike-heads for the rebellion; he was hanged July 26
    18. Robert Vesey, believed to be Denmark and Beck Vesey's son
    19. Beck Vesey, believed to be Denmark Vesey's wife in whose quarters search parties located Denmark Vesey on June 22
    20. Colonel G. W. Cross, defense attorney for Denmark Vesey
  3. Allow students to form groups and coordinate their planning. Each team will need to decide several issues, including:

    1. A fair distribution of research.
    2. Who will create a script, who will perform, and who will film (if applicable).
    3. What props need to be collected for the performance.
    4. Who will pull together the annotated bibliography.
    5. A realistic checklist/timeline so they can complete the assignment by the due date.
  4. Prior to the students' performances, ask them what aspect they are presenting so that the performances can be scheduled in chronological order of Vesey's life.
  5. After the performances have been completed, explain that there is a new wrinkle to opposition to a Vesey monument, based on research in 2001 by a historian suggesting that, although Denmark Vesey was clearly an activist for abolition; he may not have been plotting a rebellion; instead he may have been the victim of a witch-hunt instigated by an ambitious white politician eager to terrify Charleston's white citizens with a fabricated slave conspiracy. In that case, Denmark Vesey and other men, although horribly tortured may have chosen death rather than provide false testimony about a non-existent rebellion that would have led to the death of other enslaved men. Historians are divided about this interpretation. Ask students to consider this question: Is silence also a type of rebellion? Discuss whether that would also be worthy of a monument.
  6. Finally, remind students that people's behavior and, consequently, history is not always an either/or case. Denmark Vesey may very well have been planning a revolt but also chose silence rather than implicate his followers.
Assessment

Assess each student's work according to the following rubric. To convert the score to a letter grade on the 100-point scale, multiply the total score by four.

Grading Element and Total Possible Points Excellent (10) Good (9–8) Fair (7–6) Not Satisfactory (5-1) No Work (0)
Research (10) • Locates and uses specific information from a wide range of sources, both obvious and unusual

• Contains complete bibliography

• Has no factual errors or anachronisms
• Locates and uses general information and examples from obvious sources

• Contains complete bibliography

• Has no factual errors or anachronisms
• Locates and uses general information from a limited number of sources

• Bibliography contains few sources or may lack annotations

• Has no factual errors
• Research is weak, topic coverage is incomplete or unbalanced

• Bibliography lacks annotations and/or indicates little or no research

• May contain factual errors
No research
Performance (10) • Well-balanced, thorough presentation of topic information

• Appealing performance showing originality

• Performance enhances understanding of topic

• Performers speak loudly and slowly enough to be informative
• Generally balanced, complete presentation of topic information

• Appealing project or performance

• Performance is generally on topic

• Performers are generally audible
• Presentation of information is not complete for the topic

• Appealing project or performance

• Performance strays off topic

• Some performers are so soft, rapid, or mumbled that they cannot be heard
• Presentation of data is incomplete or missing in some aspects of topic or is very vague

• Performance is disorganized

• Performance does not tie in with topic

• Performance is hard to hear or understand
No performance
Grading Element and Total Possible Points Excellent (5) Good (4) Fair (3-2) Not Satisfactory (1) No Work (0)
Group Skills (5) • Natural participation in project; shows courtesy and leadership

• Contributes to the group but does not monopolize it
Participates effectively and works cooperatively Does not work cooperatively but contributes Contributes minimally Does not participate and fails to cooperate with group effort

Related Works

  • Two PBS websites offer documentary material about Denmark Vesey. Africans in America, a website, which is the companion to a six-part PBS series, provides historical background of Denmark Vesey's life and planned slave rebellion and transcriptions of contemporary documents at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p2976.html.
  • Additional information on the role of religion in Denmark Vesey's life and conspiracy can be found at This Far by Faith, a website that companions a six-part PBS series on African-American religious experience at http://www.pbs.org/thisfarbyfaith/people/denmark_vesey.html.
Interdisciplinary Links

  • Art: Students may wish to design a monument for Denmark Vesey. Or, they may wish to create a full-scale cartoon for a mural that represents aspects of African-American resistance to slavery. If students wish to make their art representational rather than abstract, they should conduct research about accurate costumes and architectural settings of the era. These will not be the typical antebellum fashion plates and etchings of plantations, but they will require investigation of the urban life of free blacks in the antebellum era. The credits to PBS' Africans in America website include links to what is Denmark Vesey's home on Bull Street, historic Charleston urban slave quarters, and a contemporary jail. Art teachers may work with the school system or community development officers to determine if there is an appropriate space where the mural could be painted, in a school or in the community, and to secure any material donations necessary to complete the project.
  • Sociology/History of Religion: Students may wish to investigate the history of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) church of which Denmark Vesey was a member. Or, students may want to explore the role of faith in the lives of notable figures in African-American history, including Sojourner Truth, Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.
  • History: Students may wish to follow up their study of Denmark Vesey by comparing and contrasting the Vesey Conspiracy with Gabriel Prosser's Conspiracy (1800) and the 1831 Rebellion of Nat Turner (both in Virginia) or the 1733 St. John's Rebellion, and the 1739 Stono Rebellion (in South Carolina) about which young Denmark Vesey may have heard.
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