Charleston, S.C. — Tucked away on the edge of a city park, miles from historic homes and carriage tours, a bronze statue of Denmark Vesey stands tall among lush palms and live oaks. A flyer for a celebration pokes out from a potted peace lily placed at Vesey’s feet.
The man who planned the most sophisticated rebellion by enslaved people in our nation’s history was remembered this weekend in Charleston on the 200th anniversary of his failed uprising and public hanging.
“I heard whispers about Denmark Vesey when I was probably 11- or 12 years-old,” says Lee Bennett Jr., the historian for Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston. The church was once ministered by Vesey and is where nine Black congregants were murdered by a white supremacist seven years ago.
Bennett, who grew up in Charleston, recalls Vesey being vilified as a Black man intent on killing and raping white people. As a child, he never heard Vesey was a freedom fighter, and he certainly could not have imagined hosting a celebration in his honor.
Bennett joined fellow historians, artists and community members at the Charleston Gaillard Center, a performing arts center, for a three-day event. It featured a panel discussion entitled “Truth be Told” and performances by musician Anthony Hamilton and comedian D.L. Hughley. The Gaillard organized the event, which included Mother Emanuel and the city’s new International African American Museum, set to open in January.
Denmark Vesey’s story was long left out of schoolbooks in South Carolina by those who argued the Civil War was over state’s rights, not slavery. And today, Vesey’s name is still not commonly heard unless it’s part of Mother Emanuel history or his statue is vandalized, as it was last year.
“The truth of the matter is that what a failed uprising really meant is that those who stopped the uprising would get to tell the story,” says the museum’s CEO and president, Dr. Tonya Matthews.
Vesey’s narrative was initially controlled by slaveholders fearful of another planned revolt.
So who was Denmark Vesey, now being celebrated in a nation that continues to fight over civil rights and education?
Born in St. Thomas, Vesey was enslaved before being brought to Charleston. He was allowed to keep money from various jobs and won a lottery, purchasing his freedom for $600. Vesey worked as a carpenter but could not free his wife and children owned by another slaveholder.
He began plotting a revolt at an African church now known as Mother Emanuel. It would go down on the anniversary of the French Revolution, July 14, 1822, and involve thousands killing slaveholders, freeing people and fleeing to Haiti. But Vesey’s plan was leaked, and he and dozens of others were paraded atop their coffins before being executed.
“I think there is just a way in which if you are a Black person advocating for liberation that you will often be called a villain even if we decide later that you’re a hero,” says television host W. Kamau Bell, who took part in the panel talk.
Bell points to civil rights leaders like Malcolm X whose harsh rhetoric was often criticized, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who may be known for his “I have a dream” speech, but described a riot as “the language of the unheard.” Like Vesey, both men lost their lives fighting for freedom.
But Dr. Tamara Butler, the executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, says looking at Vesey and the stories of others through the lens of love, not fear, provides understanding. Vesey, she believes, loved his family and friends still enslaved and cared about the freedom of all people. It’s a perspective Butler says is needed today.
“It’s to improve our relationship to one another and really function out of love,” says Butler. “I don’t think we’re there yet with all the legislation going on.”
Dozens of states have introduced legislation or passed laws that prohibit schools from teaching about race or racism. Many have restricted the rights of LGBTQ people. And, last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Rove v. Wade has prompted some state bans on abortions.
The story of a free Black man who risked everything for the liberty of others also raises questions for those who are privileged who see others living with less and facing discrimination.
“I think all of us have a responsibility whatever station we are in, in life, to bear witness,” says comedian D.L. Hughley. “You have to say what you see.”
Dr. Bernard Powers, the lead historian for the International African American Museum, suggests Vesey’s story offers a dire warning.
“He shows you what will happen if peaceful change is not an option for people because the spirit of freedom and the spirit of liberty is unquenchable,” he says.
For 20 years, Powers and others fought for the statue of Vesey now standing outside the tourist district. They’d wanted it closer, but they were pleased eventually when it did go up in 2014.
He remembers when even a painting of Vesey was on display in a public place was so controversial that it was stolen from the Gaillard. That same painting, returned unscathed after a reward was offered, was displayed again at the performing arts center for the weekend’s celebration.
: July 20, 2022
A previous version of the photo captions incorrectly said the rebellion was planned in 1882. The correct year is 1822.Dr. Tamara Butler’s name was incorrect. It has been corrected as of Aug. 10, 2022.