At one o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, January 21, a group of people will gather at the intersection of Logan and Magazine streets, where the Robert Mills Manor public housing project now stands. There’s not much of interest there today — a quiet, tree-lined street, some houses and apartments and, of course, the 70-year-old federal housing project.
The present has a way of hiding the past, of burying the dark moments and dark places in our history. A century and a half ago, this mundane little patch of earth was one of the most horrific places in a city renowned for its violence.
This was the site of the notorious Workhouse, a two-story brick building owned and staffed by the City of Charleston, where recalcitrant and runaway slaves were brought to be beat, thus sparing their owners the unpleasant task. It was here, in 1769, that two black domestics, a man named Liverpoole and a woman named Dolly, were burned on the public green on suspicion of having poisoned a white child. It was here, in the summer of 1822, that Denmark Vesey and 34 colleagues were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for plotting a slave uprising in Charleston. They were marched from the Workhouse to a place above Line Street, where they were hanged.
When it was destroyed by the great earthquake of 1886, the town fathers decided not to rebuild the infamous structure and it slipped quietly into history and out of memory. Today, there is nothing to mark this terrible place or the terrible things that were done here under color of law.
Yet, the evidence of its history — and of countless other acts of violence and exploitation — are everywhere in this racially polarized city. They haunt us like ghosts. They bump us on the street and sit beside us on city buses. We can’t see them, but we feel them, the vague fears, the suspicions, the resentments when we see someone who doesn’t look like us. They reverberate through the years from dark and forgotten places like the Workhouse. They echo from generation to generation, shaping the patterns of our lives, our habits, our thoughts.
That is why Greg Liotta, the Rev. Ed Cosak of Unity Church, and other members of the Rosemary Project will come here next Saturday to pray and lay sprigs of rosemary on this unholy piece of ground. It is one of many places in the Charleston area which the Rosemary Project intends to identify and visit in coming months in an effort to bring healing and atonement to this troubled city.
“We’re going to be deliberate and be respectful,” Liotta said. “We want to know exactly what happened and to whom. We want to learn their names, if possible. We want to speak to them and understand them … It’s really about atonement.”
There is much to atone for. Communities, like families, have skeletons in their closets, secrets that go unmentioned for decades, for generations, even as those families and communities are wracked by secret fears and regrets.
Liotta, Director of Diversity Initiatives at the College of Charleston, knows what he is talking about. A social worker by training, a mystic by nature, he specializes in the field of conflict resolution, both in families and in larger communities. “If people don’t find a way to achieve harmony with each other,” he said, “they are going to keep fighting.”
Liotta has studied other examples of conflict resolution, including the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. At the end of apartheid, whites were allowed to expiate their crimes against blacks by coming forward and telling a public tribunal what they had done, often in gripping, gruesome detail. The hearings made for months of riveting testimony, much of it broadcast on South African television.
Liotta does not necessarily subscribe to the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because that was a model based on public shaming. The Rosemary Project seeks not to shame, he said, but to atone.
Liotta may have a point, but the T&R Commission did accomplish one thing. It put on public record the crimes of the apartheid government and individuals in a way that can never be denied. Something like that might have been useful at the end of the Civil War. Anyone raised in the South before the 1960s knows how the subject of slavery was almost completely expunged from history books and popular culture. To the extent that it was acknowledged, it was treated as a benevolent institution, dedicated as much to uplifting happy, grateful black people as to enriching their owners.
Today, honest people understand that slavery was a brutal, dehumanizing institution. We have documents and photographs to help us remember. And through the work of Greg Liotta and the Rosemary Project, we have places, as well. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.