The Impact Center for Public Interest Law is celebrating Black History Month by paying tribute to the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement from the 18th and 19th Centuries who used the power of law to challenge slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow, or who faced the wrath of the law for trying to do so. These accounts demonstrate the power of human agency to make change, even under oppressive circumstances, and inform our continued efforts to challenge racial injustice. We’re proud to share the first in a series of these short reports:
Taking Up Arms Against Their Oppressors: 
Charles Deslondes, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner

After the successful 1804 uprising by self-liberated people in Saint-Domingue against French colonial rule, enslaved people in the United States led heroic uprisings in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Virginia. In all cases, these leaders sacrificed their lives on behalf of other enslaved people. Their brave actions contributed to the cause of abolitionism that set the United States on its course toward the Civil War. These events also demonstrated deeply entrenched racism in the legal system, which oppressors used to punish those who had sought freedom, often by setting up secretive tribunals.

On January 6, 1811, a group of enslaved people from sugar plantations in Louisiana met to plan what would become the largest uprising against slavery in the history of the United States. The rebellion was led by Charles Deslondes, who worked on a plantation owned by Manuel Andry. Various accounts claim that anywhere from 200 to 500 enslaved people participated. Militias that gathered to suppress the group killed dozens of participants and tried others without counsel before specially convened tribunals. Deslondes and 30 other individuals were convicted and executed following these proceedings.

In June 1822, Denmark Vesey, a carpenter and former enslaved person who led the African Methodist Episcopal Church, planned an uprising in Charleston, South Carolina. Through his congregation, Vesey recruited men to take part in the rebellion, drawing parallels between their right to freedom and the biblical story of the Exodus. He quickly gained support, and the uprising would have been the largest of its kind in American history. However, as in Louisiana, local authorities formed a militia to suppress the organizing effort. Those arrested by the militia were held until a newly created Court of Magistrates and Freeholders, known as the “Vesey Court,” heard evidence against them. The proceedings of the Vesey Court were largely conducted in secret, and defendants were often unable to confront their accusers or hear testimony against them. Vesey and five enslaved men were among the first group to be judged guilty by the secret proceedings and condemned to death. After their executions, Charleston authorities exiled the leaders of his congregation and razed the church. Although devastated by the destruction of the church, Black Charlestonians continued to honor Vesey's revolutionary Old Testament theology in secret. For abolitionists such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Vesey became a symbol of resistance and an inspiration in their writings.

In August 1831, Nat Turner, an enslaved preacher, led an uprising of enslaved people in Southampton County, Virginia. He and his followers were ultimately defeated by state militia, and dozens of suspected insurrectionists were tried in courts that were convened specifically to hear their cases. Turner and more than 50 other individuals were convicted and sentenced to death by a collection of 20 judges—all enslavers.

The sacrifices of Deslondes, Vesey, Turner, and their followers—who took action in the face of violent militias and a profoundly unjust legal system—helped set the stage for the Civil War and the end of slavery in the United States.

--by Francesca Rogo

Alfred L. Brophy, The Nat Turner Trials, 91 N.C. L. Rev. 1817 (2013).

Black Soldiers in the U.S. Military During the Civil War, National Archives,,30%2C000%20of%20infection%20or%20disease (last visited Feb. 23, 2021).

Christopher Klein, 10 Things You May Not Know About Nat Turner’s Rebellion, History: Stories, (February 5, 2020).

Daniel Rasmussen, American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt (2011).

David M. Robertson, Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of America’s largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It (1999).

Jamie Lynn Johnson, The Undead Bones of Denmark Vesey: The Complications of History (Apr. 30, 2010) (M.A. thesis, Georgetown University),

John W. Cromwell, The Aftermath of the Nat Turner Rebellion, 5 J. Negro Hist. 208–234 (1920).

Leon A. Walters, Jan. 8, 1811: Louisiana’s Heroic Slave Revolt, Zinn Educ. Project, (last visited Feb. 23, 2021).

Marissa Fessenden, How a Nearly Successful Slave Revolt Was Intentionally Lost to History, Smithsonian Mag.: Smart News (Jan. 8, 2016),

Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Story of Denmark Vesey, Atlantic (June 1861),

Richard D. Marsico, Director

Swati Parikh, Executive Director, Office of Public Service and Pro Bono Initiatives

Jarienn James ’17, Law and Policy Program Coordinator 

Andrew Scherer, Policy Director 

Melissa Toback Levin ’19, Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow

Rachel Welt ’20, Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow
New York Law School
Impact Center for Public Interest Law
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