Terrorist or Revolutionary? Rebel Denmark Vesey Is Still Dividing Charleston

In 1822, Danish Vesey was on the verge of implementing a radical plan: let the Black Charlestonians rebel against the white inhabitants of the city.

He had amassed the support of hundreds of free and enslaved people, but his plan was leaked at the last minute, thwarting an uprising that would have changed history and brought the city of Charleston to the brink.

More than 200 years later, Charleston is still grappling with his legacy. While some have misjudged Vesey as As a terrorist of the avant-garde age, scholars and activists are struggling to give a better picture of the man who fought for African-American freedom.

That battle will be center stage at an upcoming biennial for Vesey in Charleston, where historians, artists and community members will gather to celebrate his life and influence on as a “revolutionary”. The event comes just a year after the Vesey monument in the city was vandalized, forcing it to be completely restored.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, International African American Museum Director Dr Tonya Matthews said it was essential to create the right context for Vesey’s story.

“The hunter will be the hero until the lion becomes the historian,” Matthews said, citing a African Proverbs. “It’s the epitome of the conversation we’re having about the African-American journey.”

Denmark’s Vesey Monument in Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina.

Washington Post / Getty

In the partnership between Charleston Gaillard Centerthe International Museum of African Americans—Slated to open in 2023 — and Church of Mother Emanuel AMEThe two-year anniversary of Vesey’s planned Charleston slave revolt will begin on July 14, with events running through July 16.

“It’s about being able to give another story, another story about a young revolutionary boy, a boy fighting to free his people from enslavement here in Charleston,” according to the house. Mother Emanuel’s historian Lee Bennett.

In 1799, Vesey, a black man enslaved, bought his freedom from slave trader Joseph Vesey of Charleston after winning the city lottery. But Vesey could not buy the freedom of his wife and children, which were the property of another slave.

After winning his freedom, Vesey opened a carpentry business and helped found the Black church that later became Mother Emanuel AME, where nine black congregations was murdered in an attack by white supremacists in 2015.

Matthews explains that like African-Americans today, Vesey, as an emancipated person, encountered progress amid the dire racial disparities in Charleston society.

“Arguably, this gentleman [Vesey] achieved the version of the American dream that very few fellow humans had at the time and remained unsatisfied because of the specter of slavery,” Matthews told The Daily Beast. “His family is still enslaved; His neighbors were still enslaved. He was forced to walk on the street and watch people who looked like him brutally tortured.”

We just want to talk about another story. What’s wrong with having a Black hero?

Historian Lee Bennett

In the shadow of 1739 Stono Slave Rebellionin which enslaved Negroes created a deadly revolt to escape from South Carolina to Florida, and inspired by Haitian Revolution causing white slaves to flee the Caribbean island, Vesey orchestrated a plot for the Negroes of Charleston – both slaves and free – to rise up against the white class in 1822. Thereby, the majority of Charleston’s population was Black, which gave them the upper hand in dominating the white population of the city.

The plot is set on July 14, Bastille Day, the anniversary of the French Revolution.

But Vesey’s daring plan to kill white slaves in Charleston and escape to newly liberated Haiti failed when news of the attack spread. Follow National Park Service, two enslaved Black men revealed information about the uprising, and the white Charlestonians immediately took precautions. Vesey and his accomplices were captured, interrogated, tortured, and paraded around town on coffins before they were hanged.

But Vesey’s legacy doesn’t end at the gallows.

In the aftermath of the failed uprising, Vesey was portrayed in the city as a “brutal guy” whose sole mission was to “rape, murder, and kill white people,” explains Bennett.

The City of Charleston has stepped in. Negroes enslaved were given badges by their owners so they could be tracked, and the South Carolina Citadel — which later became Military College—Established to prevent any other planned slave attacks. Charleston also increased its police force, and the postmasters refused to send letters containing abolitionist messages. Bennett explained that the slaves would pay to send enslaved Negroes to the city Working housea kind of correctional facility, to punish and torture them if they rebel in any way.

“Home work is if you want to get the mind of your slave[s] yes, you can send your slave to the Workhouse to be beaten for a fee and then return it to you,” he said. “The city has run the Workhouse.”

Decades after the rebellion was stopped, Vesey remained a “villain” in the South, where the Daughters of the Confederacy entrusted whitewashed history books to public schools. to teach the so-called courtesy and courtesy of slaves. These books carry white revisionist history up to the 1980s, continually spreading false stories to generations of children.

“When I was growing up in Charleston, we were all educated in something called History of Simms books,” said Bennett. “They were taught in schools…and that’s because The Alliance’s Daughter has had a lot of influence on the education system. …What’s in History of Simms book? From a completely different perspective, things like the Civil War have nothing to do with slavery; it’s about the rights of nations, and it’s called the ‘Northern Invasion War’ or ‘The War of the Nations’, which is powerful. “

Instead of seeing Vesey as a liberator fighting for his people, he was seen as a monster trying to disrupt the system. Bennett compared the twisted story of Vesey’s life to the current obsession with Critical Race Theory.

“We always have to find a scammer and [Critical Race Theory] is the new scammer,” Bennett explained further. While CRT is an advanced academic study of how race impacts society, social conservatives have falsely claimed to teach young children to despise white people.

Instead of parents worrying about their children being taught identity politics, Bennett says adults should focus more on whether students are learning “historically correct,” including what Controversial figures like Vesey.

“So we just wanted to tell a different story. What’s wrong with having a Black hero? ‘ Bennett said.

At the end of the day, you’re not talking about someone who’s being violent because of the violence. You are not talking about someone simply trying to terrorize a country.

Dr. Tonya Matthews

Despite centuries of inequality, Charleston made racial progress. In 2014, after years of activists calling for Vesey’s memorial, a memorial was finally dedicated to the freedom fighter near the current location of the Citadel, where the first Memorial Day was held. to commemorate the slave soldiers who fought in the Civil War. A year later, a Confederate flag was finally removed from a home in South Carolina by an activist.

But fixing Vesey’s story is still a fight. In 2010, a statue in honor of Vesey in Charleston remained a point of contention, with one writer giving Paper City Charleston label him a terrorist.

“The erection of a statue in honor of Vesey is acknowledging that terrorism is sometimes justifiable, depending on the cause. But for civilized people, terrorism should never be justified — and neither should Danish Vesey.” I wrote.

Just over a decade later, in May 2021, Post Office and Courier reported that Vesey’s monument had been vandalized and had to undergo a lengthy series of repairs.

“As with recent acts of vandalism to the city’s monuments, we will repair the damage,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said in a statement at the time. “We will work to punish those who did it. And we will never allow this kind of cowardly misconduct to divide our city or distract our citizens from the real and meaningful progress we are all making. do it together”.

The struggle to readjust Vessey is emblematic of the broader fight to address the legacy of slavery across Charleston, where just two years ago one of the organization’s most fervent supporters, John C. Calhoun, stood tall downtown. The Citadel, located near the statue of Vesey, still plays “Dixie“At football matches when fans wave Confederate flags.

And just last week, a group of Confederate sympathizers held a rally outside the South Carolina state building on the anniversary of the flag’s removal, Daily Cola reported.

“It’s our way of reminding people to keep … history and stop trying to erase it,” one protester told the outlet.

At this week’s biennial, historians and racial activists will discuss the city’s long history of chattel enslavement and Vesey’s mission to free the Black Charlestonians. Bennett will moderate a panel, including Matthews, the political comedian W. Kamau Bellmedia personalities and Charleston natives Charlamagne forgives God, Avery . Research CenterDr. Tamara Butler, Charleston University Slavery Research Center in Charleston Director Dr. Bernard Powers, and Kennedy Center art director BAMUTHI.

“At the end of the day, you’re not talking about someone being violent because of violence. You’re not talking about someone simply trying to terrorize a country,” Matthews asserted. “You’re talking about someone who’s fighting for other people’s freedom, and it’s ironic that they’re quintessentially American themselves.”

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