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The Story of Charleston’s Hanging Tree
Published:
11/13/2013 12:29:57 PM


Damon L. Fordham
 

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.


 

Damon L. Fordham teaches African American history at various colleges in the Charleston area. The above story is referenced in his book “True Stories of Black South Carolina,” and he may be reached at Damonfordham@yahoo.com for speaking engagements.
 

Visitor Comments

Submitted By: Clarence R. Aiken Jr Submitted: 10/25/2014
I am a native Charlestonion and my family "The Aiken" has a lot of history. That "Hanging Tree" has a lot to do with me not living in Charleston. I attended Burke High from 1963 to 1968 and at that time their was a rope on one of the branches. My grandmother I asked her about that tree and she told me the story of the "The Hanging Tree". Looking at this tree everyday going to school, and knowing the history gave me the incentive to not make Charleston my home. Even today in 2014 the memory of that tree is still their. They called themselves cutting it down, but you still got to go around it. They didn't up root the tree so the memory still lives on. I now make Washington DC my home.


Submitted By: max barshled Submitted: 2/18/2016
It is said the real Hanging Tree was cut down long ago. Maybe there were two. I heard it was neat Archibald Street. An old man I rented from claimed to have a slab of it, who knows. Let's hope it was properly burned.


Submitted By: Submitted: 4/20/2016
Curtains are hung, people are hanged. You never say a person was hung, a person was hanged.


Submitted By: Submitted: 5/29/2016
If the only comment you have after reading this article is about grammar, please sit down and pray for empathy. This town needs unity among is people. Too many people of color and low income families are still hurting. Let's focus on how we can bridge gaps and make things more equal for everyone. How we can stop the KKK from advertising in Charleston? How can we stop people from mistreating and targeting brown people and low income citizens... how we can make things more equal ... let's focus on that. What about the Title 1 schools? Folks should not be attacked while at church or shot multiple times unarmed by law enforcement. How can we or you help with that?


Submitted By: Submitted: 5/29/2016
We should NEVER have to say anything about PEOPLE hanging from trees or PEOPLE being hung from trees -IT SHOULD'VE NEVER HAPPENED! Let's focus on that instead of attacking people and giving a horribly COLD & HEARTLESS grammar lesson.


Submitted By: Delzora Castor Submitted: 5/30/2016
I have not lived in Charleston SC in years but when I come home. I take my children to this tree to teach them what my father taught me about who I am as a person


Submitted By: W. Folk Submitted: 5/31/2016
Of course slavery was terrible. If a person poisons someone or sets their house on fire to force the owners out to kill them then they should be held accountable and tried. There are bad people of every color and regardless of that they should be accountable for their actions. Hanging was the acceptable form of punishment. If guilty you pay the penelty.


Submitted By: Audrey Submitted: 5/31/2016
They wish it was still acceptable.


Submitted By: Mary Lee Submitted: 6/7/2016
The slave master could kill, maim, rape, and commit all kinds of crimes against the slave and never go punished for such crimes. The slave had no recourse. So you blame them for establishing their own system of justice?


Submitted By: Ella Chambers Submitted: 6/11/2016
I have never heard about the hanging tree in my life time born 1965 in San Antonio,Texas. The slave owners were horrible they had the freedom to rape, kill, and hang innocent people in most cases for hundreds of years. Dailey they lived in fear for there lives which could be taken at any time. Even after slavery ended still lynching innocent black people continued. Fighting for freedom required blood must be shed in some ways special during the civil war. There were many slaves shot to death, homes burned down, beaten with a whip, and hung by trees. I remember hearing stories about my grandfather and a uncle had to run for there life from being chased by white man in which they survived. It is understood the rebellions they took place fighting to be free from the horrible slave masters they faced on a daily basis for hundreds of years.


Submitted By: Nathaniel A. Williams Submitted: 7/3/2016
The original tree, which the City of Charleston struggled to save when it began to rot at the base by placing bricks in it, was struck by lightning and was removed. The oak tree which stands there today is a replant by the city. It was said that a rocking chair was made from the remains of the original tree and given to the city. The chair is housed in the Office of The Mayor.


Submitted By: Bill Submitted: 7/12/2016
I grew up on Fishburne Street not far from the Hanging Tree which was on Ashley Avenue. In fact, I personally saw “strange fruit” hanging from that Tree one Summer night in the 1960s. The following day, there was only a brief paragraph in the Charleston News and Courier/Evening Post about that body found hanging in the tree.


 
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