The Denmark Vesey statue in Hampton Park was vandalized in 2021 | File photo

When Denmark Vesey rebelled against slavery 200 years ago that ended with his death and the execution of 34 of his co-conspirators in Charleston, I am sure he didn’t have comedians in his ranks.

An imagined portrait of Denmark Vesey from The Gibbes Museum of Art

Three nationally known funny men, however, will be in town July 14-16 for the Denmark Vesey Bicentenary, featuring a panel discussion, two concerts and a comedy performance. Three of the events have an admission cost, and one is free. 

Organized by the Charleston Gaillard Center, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the-soon-to-open International African American Museum (IAAM), the events will highlight Vesey’s alleged plot to kill white Charlestonians on July 14, 1822, then flee with his supporters to Haiti where enslaved people had waged a successful 12-year revolt against France. During the Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and others hailed Vesey as a hero to inspire Black men to join the Union Army.

When the Gaillard, the church and IAAM announced plans for the event in May, however, one local group asked why it was not consulted in the planning of the city’s first major event to remember Vesey, a carpenter who bought his freedom.

The Gaillard website lists the six panelists who will talk July 14 about Vesey during a panel discussion entitled “Truth Be Told: Vesey.” 

The July 14 event will include W. Kamau Bell, a stand-up comic and host of CNN’s United Shades of America, and Moncks Corner-native Charlamagne Tha God, who brings a comedic delivery during his national radio show, The Breakfast Club. Two days later, comedian D.L. Hughley will deliver his stand-up routine July 16. Both events will be held at the Gaillard.

Bell and Charlamagne Tha God tackle tough, relevant topics. Bell even interviewed a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But can he and Charlamagne Tha God help Charlestonians understand the complicated issues of slavery and Vesey’s attempt to rebel against it? How much Vesey research have they done? Was Charlamagne Tha God invited to attract a younger crowd, many of whom have probably never heard of Vesey? Even if they’re interested in the topic, will they pay $25 to attend this event?

Can Bell and Charlamagne Tha God settle a new debate that Vesey was a member of Second Presbyterian Church of Charleston and not a leader in the African Church, a forerunner to Emanuel AME?  Most scholars contend Vesey was a member of the African Church when the city outlawed it and had the building burned, forcing its members underground until the Civil War ended.  Recent research suggests a different narrative.

Can comedians shed light on where Vesey’s co-conspirators are buried? In a recent lecture in Charleston, James Spady, an associate professor of American history at Soka University in Aliso Viejo, California, contended they were quickly interred on what is now the campus of the Medical University of South Carolina. Spady has edited a new collection of essays on Vesey and the antislavery rebellions. Are these panelists familiar with Spady’s research?

Hughley, a comedian and actor, is the host of the D.L. Hughley Show heard on radio stations across the country. He has written extensively on race in America, which qualifies him to talk about slavery. But can Hughley’s levity break the lingering tension surrounding slavery to put Vesey in a new light to settle questions of what role he played in the aborted uprising?

The Gaillard, Emanuel and the IAAM should be congratulated for a program that brings more attention to Vesey. The genesis of the event began with Emanuel’s historian Lee J. Bennett Jr., who shared his thoughts on ways to recognize Vesey’s effort to liberate enslaved people with Lissa Frenkel, Gaillard’s president and CEO. “She offered an opportunity to do something at the Gaillard,” said Bennett, who will moderate the “Truth Be Told” panel. 

Need for a historian

It appears, however, the event was on a path of not including a professional historian familiar with Vesey until the organizers received a May 18 letter from the Denmark Vesey & The Spirit of Freedom Monument Committee. 

Henry Darby’s absence from the Vesey panel is a glaring omission. Darby, the Denmark Vesey committee’s chairman, co-led the 1996 effort to place a Vesey statue on Marion Square. It sparked widespread white backlash in Charleston and across South Carolina. The statue was eventually placed in 2014 at Hampton Park, following a suggestion from then-Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. Darby is also a member of the Charleston County Council.

In a letter to the Vesey event organizers, the committee noted it was not consulted on the event planning and no one from the committee was invited to join the panel. The committee recommended that organizers consider Dr. Bernard Powers, history professor emeritus at the College of Charleston, to be a panelist. The committee also objected to the use of Vesey’s name to sell event tickets. The committee asked the organizers to refrain from commercializing Vesey’s name “so it can serve as a lesson to our children not to try to make money off the name of our dead heroes,” Darby said.

The organizers recently have “recognized more could have been done to get in touch with the community,” Darby said, adding he has had productive conversations with Frenkel and the IAAM’s president and CEO, Dr. Tonya Matthews. “Moving forward, there will be collaboration not just with the committee,” but with other groups in the city, he said. The organizers have asked Powers to join the panel, he said. Darby stressed there is no tension between the committee and the Gaillard, Emanuel or the IAAM.

“Uncomfortable laughter”

Frenkel said, “We are excited that our bicentenary offers a range of voices on the topic of Denmark Vesey. It allows community members to engage with this important historical figure on a number of different levels and meets them where they might be most receptive to this message. We hope that folks who might not come to a traditional panel discussion would be curious how more popular entertainment figures might contextualize the importance of this man.”

Matthews said although slavery is a serious topic, the comedic art form and African-American comedy have been used “as one of our tools to have a more open, more honest, more empathetic conversation about the real black experience, particularly in America. There are few things more powerful than uncomfortable laughter. You laugh not because it was funny, but because it was true. D.L. Hughley is one of our modern-day comics in that tradition.”

When asked about the comedians invited to the event Darby said, “D.L. has a serious side to him. Perhaps he has procured enough knowledge of Vesey to inform the community about Vesey. He is an activist in his own right.”Charleston actor and director Henry Clay Middleton portrayed Vesey in the 2007 Charleston Stage production of Denmark Vesey: Insurrection. “Some comedians have a very vivid third eye [and they] can see things” that are not obvious to others, Middleton said. “Local scholars who are connected to our community’s unique history may serve this occasion better,” he added. “That is not taking anything away from the comedians.”

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.