Wow!: Memorial to the Denmark Vesey ‘Slave Revolt’ Conspiracy To Be Built in South Carolina

I was very surprised when I read this story at the Charleston Post and, dated February 2010, about a monument that is planned for Charleston, SC:

In an event sure to rekindle the racially polarized debate over Denmark Vesey’s place in history, a site in Hampton Park was dedicated Monday for a monument to the man hanged for plotting a slave rebellion in Charleston. (Note: The article includes a model of the memorial.)

To the local politicians, religious leaders and historians at the event, Vesey was a civil rights leader acting on a universal desire for justice that unites all people. Monument designer Ed Dwight favorably compared Vesey to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

But this is Charleston, where the hanging of a portrait of Vesey in the municipal auditorium in 1976 — more than 150 years after Vesey was himself publicly hanged — prompted much criticism, and the theft of the painting. “It was very controversial,” College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers Jr. said. “People were writing to The (Charleston, SC) News and Courier expressing outrage that the portrait of a criminal could be hung in a public place.”

[Charleston mayor Joseph] Riley described Vesey as an important civil rights figure, part of the “substantially untold story of African-American history and life in this community and this country, and their role in building America… We tell these untold stories so the truth will set us free.”

There is no doubt that the story of Denmark Vesey is compelling. Wikipedia provides a summary:

In 1781, Vesey was purchased by Captain Joseph Vesey from the then-Danish Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He labored briefly in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), and then was settled in Charleston, South Carolina as a youth, where Joseph Vesey kept him as a domestic slave. On November 9, 1799, Denmark Vesey won $1500 in a city lottery. He bought his own freedom and began working as a carpenter. Although briefly a Presbyterian, Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. The church was temporarily shut down by white authorities in 1818 and again in 1820.

Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to slay their owners and temporarily seize the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation.

Two slaves opposed to Vesey’s scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.

It’s important to note that no actual slave revolt took place. Vesey and his people were basically tried on conspiracy charges.

I admit to being surprised that something as contentious as this – a memorial to a person who was accused of planning a slave revolt – is being built in South Carolina, of all places. The state has been embroiled in controversies over the presentation of history, such as the display of the Confederate flag on the state capital grounds, and the Secession Ball held last December in Charleston to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the date that South Carolina seceded from the Union. (Let me take this opportunity to make the obligatory disclaimer that the Vesey memorial is about commemoration, not celebration.)

But perhaps I’m overreacting. It could just be that things have progressed to the point that it’s now possible to place unpleasant events like the Vesey Conspiracy into the public memory, even in South Carolina. That is something to celebrate.

EDIT: Upon reflection, it strikes me that the fact that the Vesey incident was a conspiracy, and not an actual revolt, made it more palatable as a public memorial. If this had been a revolt where people had been killed, it might have been too controversial for a public space.

2 thoughts on “Wow!: Memorial to the Denmark Vesey ‘Slave Revolt’ Conspiracy To Be Built in South Carolina

  1. I think the most important part about the Denmark Vesey story is the questions it provokes – “Was Vesey wrong to fight/plot for basic civil rights? Is it ever right to purposely break laws that are unjust?” In that sense, Denmark Vesey is very much like MLK Jr. Having just been to South Carolina and Hampton Park, I am very excited to see the park being used to interpret the African-American experience in Charleston. Perhaps in the future, Hampton Park can become the site of another memorial, commemorating the first Memorial Day as Blight describes in Race and Reunion pages 64-70.

    • I think the most important part about the Denmark Vesey story is the questions it provokes – “Was Vesey wrong to fight/plot for basic civil rights? Is it ever right to purposely break laws that are unjust?”

      There’s no doubt that somebody, somewhere, has made a thoughtful comparison of the approaches taken by Vesey and King. I can’t do justice to the subject in a brief reply, but I can say this:

      (a) The Founding Fathers asserted inalienable rights to justify the severing of their ties to Britain. I think the case can be easily made that the slaves of SC were suffering under a greater deprivation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, than did the American Colonists. If it was right for the Founders to fight for Liberty and Freedom, then certainly it was right for the American slave to do so.

      (b) Vesey and his fellows probably wish they had the options, resources, and support that King had in his day. I think there’s a saying that, “When peaceful revolution is impossible, then violent revolution is inevitable.” Or something like that.

      King’s action took place in an era of legal action by the NAACP, and support from the NAACP was key in taking the boycott case to the Supreme Court. Mass media made it possible to bring the movement’s non-violent agitation (and the violent responses that followed) to the American people in a visual way that was impossible in Vesey’s era. King (and the movement) were able to draw upon a reservoir of goodwill and outrage from non-Southerners; that wasn’t available to Vesey.

      Etc, etc. None of these circumstances or conditions were in effect in Vesey’s day.

      If Vesey and his co-conspirators were going to gain freedom for themselves and their families, violence seemed to be the only solution. The idea that the slaves would be able to obtain a negotiated settlement for their freedom with their masters and the rest of white society no doubt seemed very remote.

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