Denmark Vesey and a battle over history in Charleston

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·Senior National Affairs Reporter
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Mourners left flowers and a candle surrounded by chili peppers at the feet of the recently erected statue of Denmark Vesey, a founder of Emanuel A.M.E. Church who attempted to lead a slave rebellion in Charleston. (Goodwin/Yahoo News)

Tucked into a corner of leafy Hampton Park in Charleston, S.C., is a gleaming statue of an African -American man carrying a small bag of carpentry tools and gazing proudly in the direction of the park’s gazebo.

It’s hard to tell from just looking at the modest statue, but it’s been at the center of a heated and racially polarized debate in Charleston for nearly 20 years, one that reflects a larger divide between black and white highlighted by the massacre of nine African -American churchgoers Wednesday night.

In South Carolina, much is conveyed in public symbols and displays, whether it’s the Confederate flag flapping in the wind outside the Capitol or the towering statue downtown of John C. Calhoun , who pushed for civil war and defended slavery as not just a necessary evil but as a “positive good.” The murder of nine black men and women this week at a Bible study at a historic black church in Charleston — which appears to have been carried out by a white supremacist obsessed with slavery and its legacy — has reinvigorated the debate over how the state’s history is told in public, and who gets to tell it.

At a vigil for the victims in Charleston Friday night, the crowd of thousands cheered the loudest when speakers called for the removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds. And longtime Mayor Joe Riley told the mourners that black history has been suppressed in public for too long. “We weren’t able to learn some chapters of history because they weren’t printed,” he said, while announcing that he would raise funds for an African-American museum of history that will include an exhibit about Emanuel A.M.E. Church and the nine who died there. Over the weekend, vandals defaced a statue memorializing Confederate defenders of Charleston with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.”

But long before these attacks drew the attention and mourning of the nation, Charleston’s black community has been fighting to tell more of their story in public.

One of the biggest such battles has been over Denmark Vesey, a founding member of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church that was attacked earlier this week and a former slave who bought his own freedom when he won the East Bay lottery in 1799. In 1822, Vesey plotted a massive rebellion in Charleston, planning to burn the city and kill whites before escaping with thousands of slaves to Haiti, where slavery had been abolished. Informants ratted him out ,and the plot was foiled before it could begin. Vesey and more than 30 others were hanged.

SLIDESHOW:  9 killed at church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina >>

Soon after, Charleston elites built a large armory, called the Citadel, to fortify themselves against any future rebellion from the slaves, who far outnumbered them. Laws were passed to restrict the movements of freed black men, as well.

As the years passed, Vesey’s name faded in the collective memory of Charleston. He wasn’t included in the history books, and black children in Charleston rarely heard about him. There were no Vesey streets, Vesey statues, Vesey shops or Vesey plazas. One attempt to change that in the 1970s was met with resistance. The city hung a portrait of Vesey in the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium in 1976, but vandals quickly stole it. It was anonymously returned when the recently elected Riley said he would get another one painted. The city bolted it to the wall, close to a stairwell where it was partially obscured. That was the extent of Charleston’s recognition of Vesey.

Henry Darby, who’s been a countycouncilman for more than10 years, remembers first hearing Vesey’s name as a freshman at Morris College in Sumter, when he was only 16 years old.

One of Darby’s professors asked him whether he knew who Vesey was. Darby said no, and the professor scolded him and told him the story.

“From that day on, I was determined to do something for him,”said Darby,who is now 60. “I said if I had a son , I’d name him Denmark Vesey.”

But Darby had daughters instead, and in 1996, he decided it was time to make good on his promise. Darby and local political and religious leaders began a fundraising effort to create a memorial to Vesey. The original idea was to create three life-size statues — Vesey in the middle with two of his lieutenants who helped plan the uprising flanking him on either side. Darby recalled that white Charleston leaders tried to convince them to surround Vesey with Harriet Tubman and other less threatening black leaders. “They see Vesey as a villain and a murderer of whites,” Darby said. But to him, Vesey represented a selfless hero who was willing to risk his relatively secure position as a freed man to gain liberty for his brothers and sisters.

The group’s original plan — to place the statue in front of the old Citadel that was erected after his failed insurrection in Marion Square, a stone’s throw from Emanuel Church — was foiled after the two groups that own the square refused. The Washington Light Brigade, a militia formed after the Revolutionary War that later sent men to fight for the Confederacy, and the Sumter Guards, another group with roots in the Civil War, objected to memorializing Vesey on their grounds. The two-story statue of John Calhoun towers over the square now.

The debate over the statue got increasingly ugly as the years dragged on.

“It was nothing short of Mission Impossible,” recalled Darby. He said there was “massive white resistance” to the idea, and the group also had trouble raising enough funds for the statue.

Douglas Egerton, a professor at Le Moyne College who wrote a biography of Vesey, recalled a letter to the editor during the debate over the statue comparing Vesey to O.J. Simpson. Meanwhile, malicious rumors about Vesey swirled: mainly that he became a slave owner after he won his freedom and that he was a polygamist.

“There really was this separate memory and view of Vesey that seems to break down along racial lines,” Egerton said. “I have yet to meet a white Charlestonian who isn’t suspicious or openly hostile to the idea of Vesey.”

The statue was finally erected earlier this year in Hampton Park, about a mile away from Marion Square and 18 years after the group first started lobbying for the structure.

The statue was a hopeful sign for some in Charleston that the African-American experience would finally be recognized in public. Arthur McFarland, a 68-year-old attorney who was a municipal judge in Charleston for 34 years, says he visits Vesey every morning. “Good morning, Mr. Vesey,” he says as he walks by the statue with his wife.

McFarland helped erect another statue this year, which counters the towering memorials of segregationists and slavery boosters sprinkled around the state. (A statue of former South Carolina Gov. Ben Tillman, a white supremacist, stands in front of the state house.) The monument next to the federal courthouse honors Julius Waties Waring, a white federal district judge who, ahead of his time, strongly supported desegregation in the 1940s. He was the first federal judge to rule that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Waring was shunned by Charleston society and eventually left the city altogether.

The twin statues, both erected in the same year, were seen as encouraging signs of progress to leaders in the black community.

“Those statues mark the first time you had individuals with that kind of history being recognized in Charleston,” McFarland said.

The racial history of Charleston clearly mattered to the shooter. In a website believed to belong to Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old posted nearly 60 photos of himself posing with the Confederate flag and visiting multiple historical sites around South Carolina, including the Museum and Library of Confederate History in Greenville and Sullivan’s Island, the port through which 40 percent of African slaves entered the United States. He also went to a plantation and apparently took a tour of the eight slave cabins the plantation keeps as an exhibit. Another photo shows him in front of a sacred burial ground for slaves who worked on the McLeod planation. In his garbled writing, Roof angrily rejects the idea that the institution of slavery was unjust, and he blames “historical lies” for exaggerating its brutality. The writing yearns for a time when a white elite ruled over black people.

Roof was most likely aware of the significance of Emanuel, the first independent black church in the state. Vesey preached there and may have plotted rebellion at the site. Egerton notes that Roof killed the nine people on June 17, the day Vesey’s insurrection would have happened if it had not been stymied.

“It could just be a ghastly coincidence, but, man, it’s a coincidence,” Egerton said.

Even if Roof was not aware of the significance of the date, he hit a deeply resonant target for Charleston’s black community.

“It stands as a reminder of not only the terrible history of enslavement of African- Americans, but also a symbol of the struggle and the freedom that’s ultimately come,” McFarland said.

Now the community is left to ask how a young man could have absorbed his racist and hateful ideas — how he could have constructed an alternate history for himself where the South never lost.

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Protesters holds signs during a rally to take down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina Statehouse in Columbia, S.C. (Photo:Rainier Ehrhardt/AP)

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