On this day in history, Denmark Vesey, a former slave who bought his own freedom and who had planned a slave insurrection, was hanged along with 34 other alleged conspirators.
Vesey had been a slave in both the Caribbean and South Carolina, and knew its horrors firsthand. After buying his own freedom, he tried to purchase his wife and children, but his wife’s master refused to sell. Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, but whites shut it down. And of course he was well aware that the Charleston harbor was home to the nightmarish Sullivan’s Island, where some 40 percent of slaves were sold into the United States.
By early 1822, Vesey allegedly began to plan a large slave rebellion. Unfortunately, some slaves fearful of repercussions exposed the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy, claiming that Vesey’s “diabolical plot” would have instigated “blood, outrage, rapine, and conflagration.”
While it is almost 200 years later, many South Carolinians have not changed their views. After a life-sized statute of Vesey was unveiled in Charleston on February 14, 2014, the media decried the tribute. A columnist for the Charleston City Paper, for example, wrote:
Those serious about fighting a “war on terror” might want to start in Charleston, where plans have been made to erect a statue honoring terrorist Denmark Vesey.”
Others said it was like honoring Osama bin Laden.
Two historians at California State University in Fresno who are writing a book about slavery and public memory in Charleston, South Carolina, noted that resistance to the monument has been formidable:
Local whites have offered the standard litany of excuses about the marginal role, and benign nature, of slavery. Ground on the memorial was finally broken in February 2010, but only after opponents had prevented the statue’s placement in Marion Square. The Denmark Vesey Memorial will stand in Hampton Park, far from the Calhoun Monument, far from the city’s historic district, far from the eyes of millions of tourists.”
Douglas R. Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College and the author of “He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey,” recalled in an editorial for The New York Times:
More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. ‘Why not work within the system for liberation,’ the man asked, or even ‘stage a protest march?’
Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that.”
These monuments, in York County, South Carolina, memorialize the “Faithful Slaves” of the the Civil War, and have been deemed more acceptable than the one to Vesey.
The monuments read in part:
Dedicated to the faithful slaves who loyal to a sacred trust toiled for the support of the army with matchless devotion and sterling fidelity guarded our defenceless homes, women and children during the struggle for the principles of our Confederate States of America.”
This is the “memory” the South wishes to preserve.