By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA
When people tend to walk or drive down Ashley Avenue and Fishburne Street on Charleston’s West Side, they tend to notice a tree that divides the middle of the street. Most young people and visitors to Charleston do not know the significance of that tree, but the older African Americans and historians know it as “The Hanging Tree.”
Some believe that this tree was where Denmark Vesey and his enslaved rebels were hanged. For those not familiar with the Vesey story, Denmark Vesey purchased his own freedom in Charleston in 1800, with the winnings of a lottery, from his former master. After becoming a free man, Vesey was also a carpenter who encouraged local blacks to revolt against slavery by burning down houses in Charleston and shooting the masters as they escaped their homes. His plot was betrayed by a “house slave” named Peter Prioleau and a former friend named George Wilson. Vesey and 34 of his followers were hanged in the summer of 1822. The trial record states that Vesey was hanged at “Blake’s Lands near Charleston,” which, according to biographer Douglas Edgerton, was a nearby swampland. However, some of the other Vesey rebels were stated by the trial record to have been hanged at “The Lines near Charleston,” which could possibly refer to what is now Line Street, which is near the intersection at Ashley Avenue where the tree exists.
While it is not clear if the Vesey Rebels were hanged at the hanging tree, there is evidence of Charleston slaves who were in fact executed there.
In the 1930s, Augustus Ladson was a black Charlestonian who taught at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. He also collected the stories of former slaves and other elderly blacks of Charleston and the surrounding area for the Works Progress Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt. One of the formerly enslaved elders he interviewed was Elijah Green, who was born in 1843 and witnessed much of Charleston’s history. One matter he addressed was the hanging tree, and he told the following story to Mr. Ladson in 1937.
The first two people that was hung in Charleston was Harry and Janie, slaves of Mr. Christopher Black. Mr. Black had them whipped and they (Harry and Janie) planned to kill the whole family. They poisoned the breakfast one morning and if two of the family members hadn’t overslept, they too would have been dead. The others died almost instantly. An investigation was made and the two slaves were hung on that big oak tree on Ashley Avenue.
So whenever people pass by the hanging tree today, they could tell visitors and children the above stories as an example of the fact that while slavery killed the spirits of many people, it did not do so for all. These stories and this tree remain as evidence there were those who stood tall and fought openly to live as full human beings.