Depending on which side of the social divide a person stands, Denmark Vesey is either a freedom fighter or a terrorist.
A group of historians and intellectuals, spearheaded by the 10-member Denmark Vesey Spirit of Freedom Monument Committee, is hoping a memorial to the rebellious leader will soon be erected in Hampton Park. They believe that commemorating the former slave’s failed uprising will “open the observer’s doors of perception,” but some historians consider his story a door better left closed.
Accounts of Vesey’s life are sketchy at best. Despite being born into slavery in the Caribbean, Vesey became a skilled sailor and carpenter. He was brought to Charleston, where he won a lottery of $1,500 that allowed him to buy his freedom and set up a woodshop.
As a prominent freedman and minister at a downtown African Methodist Episcopal Church, he gained an influential voice, often citing from the pulpit his favorite Biblical story — Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. Church membership grew to over 3,000, and restrictions were soon placed on when and how the congregation could gather.
In July of 1822, after a potential slave rebellion participant revealed the plans to his master, Vesey was accused of plotting a rebellion to take over Charleston. The court proceedings — which ultimately resulted in Vesey’s and 34 others’ hangings — claimed that over 9,000 slave and freedman participants intended to murder enough whites to effectively take over Charleston. Had they succeeded, the event would stand as the second largest slave uprising in history, with only Moses and the Israelites being larger.
The records of Vesey’s secret trial were destroyed soon thereafter. No images of his face have survived, although the Gibbes Museum houses an “artist’s rendition” etching. Thirty-five men lost their lives — arguably the largest number of executions ever carried out by a U.S. criminal court. Many of the condemned were hanged from King Street lampposts, clearly a move to discourage further revolts. That same year, The Citadel was established as a garrison to house a militia, strengthening the white population’s control.
Scholars have recently raised the idea that the entire rebellion story was a farce, engineered by white paranoia to strengthen control over an increasingly restless black population. Darryl Lorenzo Wellington, a supporter of the monument, contends that the historical significance of Vesey’s story lies in its ramifications, not in its accuracy.
“People who get too hung up on whether he did it are missing the point,” says Wellington. “He legitimately represents freedom whether he was planning this or not. A lot of people were [hanged] for the wrong reasons.”
James Smart, a consulting and fund-raising member of the monument committee, feels that Vesey’s story, regardless of its accuracy, is applicable to today’s world situation.
“People living in abominable positions will strike out,” says Smart. “Why can’t our forefathers, or today’s politicians, do something before people get to the point of desperation? The parallels to what people in the Middle East are going through can strengthen our insight.”
Because Vesey’s story is hazy and no images exist, Smart supports a conceptual rather than a representational statue. Averse to the John C. Calhoun “man on a popsicle stick” monuments of Marion Square, Smart hopes for a creative piece that will spawn more innovative public art in Charleston.
Prestigious artists Richard Hunt and Maya Lin (designer of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington, D.C.) have expressed interest, and potential sculptors have until May 15 to submit an application.
The committee is offering $150,000 to the winner, a figure at the low end of the going rate for materials, labor, and maintenance from a renowned artist, and is optimistic that business, religious, and educational organizations will contribute enough to begin work in the next three years.
“The community is yearning to get this story out and raise awareness of this historic figure,” says Smart.
Not surprisingly, a monument to the leader of a failed bloody slave rebellion will likely face resistance in Charleston. Many agree with Rocky D, the outspoken WTMA radio deejay, when he states that the problem with honoring Vesey “is you’re erecting a monument to a guy who didn’t want to just kill his oppressors, he wanted to kill all white people — women, children, everybody.
“This guy’s not a hero, he’s a would-be terrorist. I don’t blame him for being angry with his situation, but you still can’t run out and kill everybody.”
Dr. Kyle Sinisi, a history professor at The Citadel, also questions the committee’s motives, pointing out that in the 1820s many black freedmen owned slaves, and that slavery had yet to gain the stigma attached to it today.
“I’m not a fan of applying our values of today to the past; this is cherry-picking history,” says Sinisi, who sees the movement to memorialize Vesey as a product of our current “obsession with race,” and is personally “not overly enthusiastic about erecting a monument to a man bound and determined to create mayhem.”
The only piece of Denmark Vesey’s story not up for debate is its immediate impact on Charleston.
After the trial and hangings, The Citadel’s creation further fortified Charleston’s defense system and modified its politics and education to keep free labor intact. The Jeffersonian perception of slavery as a necessary evil disintegrated in a fear-based society. At a time when the movement and assembly of blacks was strictly regulated, Calhoun spoke in 1937 of slavery as a positive and just institution.
The Citadel’s Sinisi contends that allowing large gatherings of blacks or swift emancipations would have ensued in chaos: “Slaves were not educated to be citizens,” he says. But chaos, in the form of the Civil War, nonetheless ensued.
Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. and the City of Charleston have granted space in Hampton Park for the monument, but James Smart and the committee still have a long road ahead to raise the needed funds. They recognize that there’s a lot of opposition, but also see a lot of support.
“Had Vesey been successful, people would have died, but the right spirit was there,” says Smart.
In early 19th century Charleston, a freedman’s children were still slaves. The monument committee is hoping the statue will provoke observers, particularly children, to ask questions like, “Why did this guy want to kill white people?” Or even, “Would I kill for my child’s freedom?” And just maybe, “How did 35 people hang in my city, and I never heard about it before now?”
No doubt it will.