Fallen at Charleston

— featuring: Martín Espada, Terrance Hayes, Shauna Morgan Kirlew, Brenda Marie Osbey, Safiya Sinclair, Frank X Walker, Afaa Michael Weaver, and more.

Fallen at Charleston
by Brenda Marie Osbey


1969 Hospital Workers’ Strike, courtesy of the Waring Historical Library

Within minutes of having been stopped by a policeman for driving with a broken brakelight in North Charleston, South Carolina, Walter Lamar Scott lay dead, face down in a grassy lot near the intersection of Remount Road and Craig Street.

Video footage shows clearly that Michael Slager twice used his Taser and then, from a distance of at least fifteen feet, fired eight rounds, striking Scott in the back, buttocks, ear and heart as the man fled on foot. Slager calls in the incident, stating simply, “Shots fired and the subject is down. He took my Taser.” He then approaches the fallen man, instructs him to put his hands behind his back, and, receiving no response, handcuffs him and walks away. After another officer arrives and requests a medical kit, Slager reaches down, places his Taser beside Scott’s body, and only then does he check the man’s pulse. Paramedics arrive and pronounce Scott dead on the scene. Videotaped by a passerby, start to finish, the event times out at under five minutes. Slager and his attorney, David Aylor, will at first claim that the officer feared for his life. Immediately upon release of the video, Aylor will resign as counsel.

Two months later, Dylann Roof will enter Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston proper and join the congregants gathered there for Wednesday night prayer service, before opening fire and killing nine people. Upon arrest, he will confess that he had hoped to instigate a “race war” because African Americans are “taking over the world.”

Emanuel AME, “Mother Emanuel,” is the home church of Telemaque (eventually known as “Denmark”) Vesey, famed for having organized the 1822 slave rebellion popularly known as the Charleston Rising. Suppressed on Sunday 16 June, the planned insurrection ended with trial by the newly formed Committee of Vigilance and Safety made up of members of the city council and wealthy landowners. Four officers of the city guard were formed into a special police force assigned with locating participants and potential informants. Twenty-four hours later, no fewer than ten were in custody.


Contemporary documents and southern and northern newspaper coverage cite as a contributing element the example of the Haitian Revolution and its “horrors.” Set in motion in August 1791 and ending only in November 1803, it outpaced the French Revolution by two years. Having begun with collusion between  free and enslaved Blacks, the world’s longest continually waged rebellion ended in the colonial world’s worst nightmare: armed defeat of the second most powerful slavery empire and the establishment of an independent Black republic in the heart of the slaveholding arena. The passing of nearly two decades was not sufficient to lessen slaveholders’ fears. Haiti’s routing of France showed that liberation through armed struggle by the enslaved was not only feasible but inevitable. Vesey had lived and worked in Haiti as a youth, labored and purchased his freedom in Charleston, established himself as a tradesman, and held a position of respect, trust and influence. He was, in retrospect, exactly the kind of Negro who could be expected to rouse others to action. It was well known that he regularly preached liberation from the pulpit of the independent church of which he had been a founding member. How had city officials and slave-owners permitted the establishment of a Negro liberationist church?

Local papers and pamphlets of the period contend that the “affection” of Charleston’s white minority for the enslaved had lulled them into a state of permissiveness, and that this, in turn, had contributed to an atmosphere ripe for insurrection. If, as informants related, the insurrection had indeed been some four years in the planning, then the timing is significant in that 1818 is the year of the founding of the African church.

Although both free and enslaved were permitted to worship in the city’s Methodist churches, state and city statutes required that all such churches maintain a white majority; that the enslaved attend only daytime services; and also enforced the prohibition against Black literacy. In addition, the Methodists desecrated an African American burial ground by building a carriage house there to store their hearses. Morris Brown, a shoemaker of free descent, was among the number who left the church in protest. Some time in 1817, he traveled to Philadelphia and aligned himself with the new denomination founded there by Richard Allen and a cohort of fifteen free delegates. Ordained first as a deacon and then as elder, he then returned and founded the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in his home city the following year. In the four years since its opening, the Charleston church was raided by officials on at least three occasions and its congregants arrested, whipped and also fined – in 1818, 1821 and again in 1822 following discovery of the planned rebellion.

The investigation that followed the capture and imprisonment of the betrayed organizers included both reward for information and torture to obtain that information. Among the planners were men enslaved to the most powerful members of Charleston’s governing and upper classes. Considered especially damning was the revelation that following the local slaughter of as many slaveowners as possible and the torching of the city, the insurgents had intended on setting sail for the new Republic of Haiti.

The trial began on Wednesday 19 June, and the court immediately put into effect a number of restrictions. Firstly, proceedings were to be held in secret. Apart from slave-owners and legal counsel, spectators were to be excluded from the court. And whereas those accused who were of free status were permitted to obtain legal counsel at their own expense, the enslaved were granted legal representation only if their masters requested lawyers for them. With regard to testimony, both Indians and enslaved Blacks were permitted to testify against the enslaved; and free Blacks were permitted to testify without taking the oath. Even with the oath, however, the testimony of free Blacks against whites was invalid. Finally, armed guards were stationed outside the jailhouse specifically to prohibit the entry of any Blacks. This last meant that, in addition to being denied legal counsel and the right to testify on their own behalf, they were further denied any and all contact with family, loved ones or other supporters during the entire time of their imprisonment.

Thomas Bennett, Jr., sitting governor (1820–22) at the time of the incident, early on expressed doubts about the legality of the trials. Four of his own slaves having been among the accused, however, he took no immediate action, but conferred privately with judge and US Supreme Court associate justice (1804–1834) William Johnson, Jr., his brother-in-law, and wrote at length to the state’s attorney general, Robert Y. Hayne. Bennett found it especially objectionable that the defendants had been deprived of the basic right to confront their accusers in a case that called for the death penalty to be applied. Local officials, however, held no such qualms.

In his brief introduction to the Account of the Late Intended Insurrection*, then-mayor James Hamilton, Jr. wrote of the accused, “there is nothing they are bad enough to do, that we are not powerful enough to punish.” It comes as no surprise that the final judgments bore out his claim. Twenty-seven were acquitted, 25 discharged without trial, 34 transported to Cuba and other slaveholding territories outside the Anglo-American mainland. Including the nine principal organizers, 35 were executed by hanging over a period of five days beginning 2 July. It was a swift, bloody and effective rubbing-out.


In addition to the trial outcomes, new laws intended to curtail rebellion and agitation for liberation were enacted. Acting on the widespread belief that free Black seamen had either aided in the Rising or could have been counted on to assist the planners in their ultimate goal of reaching Haiti, South Carolina enacted the Negro Seamen Act of 1822. All free seamen of African descent employed on vessels entering the port of Charleston would henceforth be arrested and imprisoned while docking there, and the ships’ captains fined for their upkeep for the duration. At the time of departure, the captain would pay $1000 for each crewman. Should a captain fail to pay such costs, there were two options. The free Black crewmen would be immediately sold as slaves, or, the captain could redeem a Negro seaman by serving sixty days imprisonment himself.

Interestingly, Justice Johnson pronounced the law unconstitutional – not because it violated the rights of free foreign nationals, but because it violated US treaties with Great Britain, which had depended increasingly on the labor of African sailors since its own 1807 Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. The Carolina state senate, however, declared that argument invalid on its face. And six months after the Vesey verdicts, on 21 December 1822, the Negro Seamen Act was made law. Black churches were made illegal, and would remain so until after the Civil War. The AME church of which Vesey had been a founding member was burned to the ground. Among those released, Morris Brown took his wife and children, left for Philadelphia and never returned.


Map showing colonial Spanish Florida in relation to British colonies of Carolina and Georgia

It was common in all slave territories for attempted rebellion to be answered not only with execution but increased legal repercussions for those who remained alive. South Carolina’s somewhat more successful 18th century uprising also had been followed by severe reprisals. On 9 September 1739, Cato (known to some as Jemmy) and nineteen others led an armed march from Charleston heading south to Florida, where, less than a year earlier, Spain had officially offered freedom and land to enslaved people fleeing British colonial territories.

Florida was a military outpost of the Spanish government. The entire region was land poor and that land ill-suited for agriculture, so there was no plantation society to speak of. Dependent on cash subsidies from the government seat at Havana, slavery was a luxury Florida could ill afford. Exposed on all sides to invasion by sea, the territory was populated by regimental forces needed to defend the peninsular. A small number of slaves, mostly brought in from Carolina, were used primarily for construction of fortifications and were then later able to negotiate their freedom. In 1693, King Charles of Spain had issued the first edict liberating African slaves who fought to defend Spain’s holdings at St. Augustine against the British. And bands from Carolina, Georgia and other British colonial holdings had been escaping to Spanish territory ever since. Should the Spaniards at some time renege or become hostile, one could always move farther south to Florida’s Seminole settlements.


Map depicting Fort Mose, Spanish Florida

The 1738 edict, which offered freedom to all who pledged allegiance to Spain against Great Britain and cemented their loyalty to the crown by adopting the Catholic faith, resulted in the Spaniards establishing a free settlement just outside of St. Augustine. Mose (pronounced mohz-eh) was the Native American name for the area; and the town was founded on 15 October, feast day of Santa Teresa de Ávila, patroness, among other things, of those in special need of grace and those ridiculed for their faith. El Pueblo de Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose was strategically located a couple of miles north of St. Augustine, as a military defense against British incursion. By the time of Cato’s Rebellion, Fort Mose was an official free African American township of at least 100. It had been the intended destination of Cato’s group before they were defeated by British forces southwest of Charleston at Stono River, a mere hundred and fifty miles from the Spanish Florida border.


Depiction of Stono Rebellion

On 10 May 1740, eight months after what would come to be called the Stono Rebellion, British Carolina passed its Negro Act. The new law outlawed the assembly, education and instruction of the enslaved and made it illegal for them to earn income in any way; to move about without white supervision; grow their own food; or play any musical instrument that could conceivably be used to signal gatherings for rebellion. The new code further stipulated that it was always to be “presumed that every Negro, Indian, mulatto, and mustizo [sic], is a slave,” and specified that it was at all times the burden of one so presumed to prove otherwise. The new edict expressly outlawed the importation of slaves from Africa. Cato’s group was Portuguese-speaking, and all were presumed to have come from the Kingdom of Kongo.


1740 Negro Act signed

One of the claims that Americans frequently make is that racism is the particular bailiwick of those who are uneducated, mentally ill, or both. This argument has been offered to explain the slaughter at Emanuel AME. And much has been made of the youth of the confessed killer Dylann Storm Roof. The theory has been put forward – and not only as legal defense – that  Roof, aged twenty-one at the time, must surely have been deranged. But conversations reported by witnesses to the attack tell a different story. One church member who survived the attack as her son lay dying nearby recalled his saying to her, “Shut up. Did I shoot you yet?” When she replied in the negative, he then explained that he had purposely allowed her live to be a witness and tell the world what had happened there.

Indeed, witnessing seems to be a major component in this wave of killings of African Americans. Across the United States – north, south, midwest – wherever killings of African Americans have taken place, public gatherings have been organized to show resistance, unity and courage in the face of these race hate murders.  There continue to be marches with chanting – even dancing – in protest; candlelight vigils; silent gatherings where young people, in particular, have taped closed their mouths, held up their hands, held up bags of Skittles candy, lifted signs and placards that read “Don’t Shoot!,” “Black Lives Matter!” “I can’t breathe!”; even die-ins – in which dozens, hundreds have stretched out on the ground mimicking corpses. Not Charleston.

The last public display of resistance at Charleston was the Charleston Hospital Workers’ Strike of 1969. In his Civil Rights Movement travelogue, Southern Journey: a Return to the Civil Rights Movement, Tom Dent tells readers that it was “important because it was such a classic example of the secondary phase of the movement, addressing fundamental economic inequities at the core of the racial and class structure of southern society. The Charleston strike was also significant because it was an attempt to gain recognition by nonprofessional women workers aligned against a state hospital, thus challenging the power of the state of South Carolina, a state in which labor unions were considered anathema.”

Dent sums up their goals as follows: “They wanted the minimum wage raised to $1.60 per hour, a raise of $0.25 per hour. They desired the establishment of an adequate grievance procedure. They requested that job assignments be on a nonracial basis. Finally, they hoped for union recognition, with a dues check-off system as part of their salaries. And of course they demanded that the twelve fired workers be reinstated.”


The strikers’ cause garnered support from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was then still recovering from the April 1968 assasination of founder Martin Luther King, Jr. And New York’s Hospital and Nursing Workers Local 1199 made a historic move in aligning for the very first time with southern workers. Pickets of the hospitals, marches and nightly meetings at African American churches, including Emanuel AME, were organized by a committee consisting of SCLC, 1199 and sympathetic community members. Somehow, not a single striking worker was included in this group. By April, downtown stores were being boycotted and picket lines had drummed out the tourist trade. Pickets soon spread to the homes of hospital administrators and local politicians. The city was beginning to feel the effects of the strike. Charleston lost an estimated $15 million in revenues. Charleston-area maritime workers threatened to walk out in unity with the hospital workers. And SCLC’s Ralph D. Abernathy undertook a hunger strike. Back in New York, however, Local 1199 had begun to question the value of their new southern effort, while at home in Charleston, clandestine negotiations were afoot. On Friday 27 June, it was all over. Apart from the rehiring of the workers and small raises in pay, all that was gained in the settlement reached after three months of agitation, was a new grievance policy. “If such an effort by poor Black women had succeeded,” Dent surmises, “Charleston would have been a precursor for similar attempts in the Deep South.”

The year before, less than one hundred miles northwest of the city, the event that came to be known as the Orangeburg Massacre had rocked the nation when students from South Carolina State University had attempted to integrate a local bowling alley. When their peaceful demonstrations were followed with billy club beatings and arrests, the students demanded full desegregation. Blaming the national Black Power Movement for the protest action, Governor Robert McNair responded by calling in the National Guard. When the students set a bonfire on their campus, South Carolina Highway Patrol officers arrived and opened fire. Most of the twenty-seven wounded were shot in their backs as they fled the gunfire. Two SCSU students, Henry Smith and Samuel Hammond, and high school student, Delano Middleton, were murdered. Despite the testimony of three dozen witnesses, the nine police officers were acquitted of all charges.

In contrast to a seeming tradition of blind religious piety and quiet accommodation, Charleston has a storied place in the nationwide struggle for liberation from slavery and resistance against racist oppression and assault. It also has a record unique in Southern history of an especially effective strangling of any such action.

The 2010’s are remarkable for the number and consistency of murders of African American men, women and teenagers by white police officers, jail personnel and private citizens. As activists have taken to the streets in physical show of resistance, artists and at least one composer have used their art forms to address the brutal racism at the core of American and Western society. In addition to the editors of Illuminations having dedicated issue #31 to the memory of those killed at Charleston, the poets included in this online feature reflect on the killings at Charleston and across the United States.

September 2016
© 2016 by Brenda Marie Osbey

Fallen at Charleston

“How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way” by Martín Espada

“Notes on the State of Virginia, III” by Safiya Sinclair

“What a Fellowship” by Afaa Michael Weaver

“Black 101” by Frank X Walker

“Black Bird” by Terrance Hayes

“Live Oak” and “Riposte XIV” by Shauna Morgan Kirlew

“Fallen at Charleston” by Brenda Marie Osbey

Editor’s notes:

*In full,  An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection among a Portion of the Blacks of the City of Charleston, South Carolina, Published by the Authority of the Corporation of Charleston. Boston: Joseph W. Ingraham, 1822.

Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 (25 March) did not abolish slavery in Great Britain. It outlawed the transAtlantic trade and also the trading of slaves within Great Britain. Even so, British trafficking  in slaves continued through 1811. Britain’s abolition of slavery in toto would be achieved only with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

An Act for the Better Ordering and Governing Negroes and Other Slaves in this Province.

Columbia, South Carolina 10 May 1740.

Dent, Tom. Southern Journey: a Return to the Civil Rights Movement. New York: William Morrow, 1997.

Links of interest:

Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture

Lowcountry Digital History Initiative: A Digital History Project hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston

African American Intellectual History Society’s (AAIHS) Charleston Syllabus:
(Scroll down to “On Charleston, SC.”)


Brenda Marie Osbey is a poet and essayist whose books include All Souls: Essential Poems (LSU, 2015) and History and Other Poems (Time Being, 2013). Edited works include features for Poet Lore and War|Scapes, and Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems, Edited and with an Introduction by Brenda Marie Osbey (African Poetry Book Series, 2016).

This is part 1 in the series Fallen at Charleston, guest-edited by Brenda Marie Osbey.


“How We Could Have Lived or Died This Way” by Martín Espada

“Notes on the State of Virginia, III” by Safiya Sinclair

“What a Fellowship” by Afaa Michael Weaver

“Black 101” by Frank X Walker

“Black Bird” by Terrance Hayes

“Live Oak” and “Riposte XIV” by Shauna Morgan Kirlew

“Fallen at Charleston” Introduction by Brenda Marie Osbey

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