Devils, Saints, and Denmark Vesey

The monument to Denmark Vesey resonates with particularly profound meaning today. It is not a stretch to see how this perspective on Vesey's memory speaks as much to our modern struggles with race and violence as it does to our understanding of the past.
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On February 15, the city of Charleston, South Carolina unveiled a long-overdue monument to one of its most controversial historical figures. In scenic Hampton Park on the upper part of the peninsula, crowds gathered under the majestic oak trees to catch a first glimpse of a monument to Denmark Vesey, a former slave accused of plotting a massive slave revolt in 1822. Vesey, who purchased his freedom in 1800 with lottery winnings, allegedly organized Charleston's slave population to rise up against the planter class and reclaim the city for the exploited and oppressed. When rumors of the insurrection leaked, Vesey and over thirty of his co-conspirators were interrogated and, ultimately, executed for their alleged participation in a plot to overthrow the institution of slavery.

Charleston has struggled with Vesey's memory for almost two centuries. In the immediate wake of the uprising scare, the city militarized against the threat of organized slave rebellions and enhanced their already strict laws regulating the movement of slaves and free blacks. Surveillance of African Americans intensified as official and unofficial patrols organized to monitor people of color in city streets and neighborhoods. In a state with a black majority population, the looming threat of race war led to widespread paranoia among the city's white minority. Anxiety over the Vesey conspiracy gave lawmakers the ammunition they needed to further tighten regulation over the city's free and enslaved black population and to secure white supremacy. For well over a century after his execution, historic memories of Vesey absorbed this paranoia and his reputation came to embody white anxieties over African American violence.

When the twentieth-century Civil Rights movement forced people to revisit the historic contributions of both white and black populations, many in Charleston tried to rescue Vesey's reputation. Civic leaders sought to commemorate his memory as a freedom fighter. They endeavored to celebrate Vesey for his resistance to the institution of slavery. Yet, in 1976, when the city of Charleston hung a portrait of Vesey in Gaillard Municipal Auditorium as a way to recognize and honor his role in the struggle for freedom, the decision was immediately controversial. Wildly opposing views of Vesey's historic significance exploded into the public discourse (and the portrait was actually stolen, though, eventually returned.) Factions of Charleston's white population expressed outrage that the city would commemorate a man who they believed plotted to murder innocent white people in a savage race war. Advocates of Vesey, in contrast, committed themselves to the righteousness of his crusade and the authenticity of his role as an agent of liberty. The portrait of Vesey became a flashpoint through which Charlestonians articulated long-smoldering tensions over race, history, memory, and commemoration.

Given such controversies, the fact that Charleston now has officially honored Vesey with a public monument is an important and historic step. The Vesey monument represents a vital symbol of the city's concerted efforts to honor and acknowledge the centrality of slavery and enslaved people to its history. It stands as a visual reminder of the willingness of the city to embrace an historic figure that it once demonized and reviled. No longer will Vesey be remembered as a threat to white supremacy, but rather as a champion of civil rights and as a defender of freedom. As mayor Joe Riley said to the crowd assembled for the unveiling, Denmark Vesey "risked his life and gave his life to make enslaved people free."

Yet, behind such words of praise, shadows of controversy still remain. The monument was nearly two decades in the making, a testament to the lingering difficulty of dealing with the memory of such a contentious historic figure. The Rev. Joe Darby, a leader of the AME Church, spoke most clearly about Vesey's fraught historic reputation. He admitted that, even today, "some people see Denmark Vesey as a dangerous terrorist," alluding to the stubborn anxieties about organized racial violence that continue to shape our contemporary political climate. Whereas Vesey's memory once embodied the white public's deep fears of slave uprising, today he conjures up associations with terrorism and exposes our modern ambivalence over legitimate and illegitimate violence. In many ways, the debates about Vesey's memory have not really changed much. He remains trapped with a framework of good and evil. He was either a freedom fighter or a blood-thirsty murderer, a champion of liberty or an agent of terrorism.

But there is another way to understand Vesey's legacy, one that makes far more sense within our political landscape today. The truth is, we know very little about Denmark Vesey's role in the conspiracy for which he is remembered. We do not have any concrete evidence that he planned an uprising. We do not have any concrete evidence that he did not. He left no diaries or letters detailing his plans and nobody ever transcribed a confession. Nobody ever uncovered the vast stockpiles of weapons rumored to have been stored by armies of slave soldiers. He was deemed guilty on the basis of testimony provided by witnesses who were interviewed, alone, in sealed rooms, and were threatened and possibly coerced into confessions. Vesey may have plotted one of largest potential slave revolts in American history, as some historians assert. Or, as other scholars argue, he may have been wrongly accused and made a scapegoat for white insecurity. It is also possible, as some content, that both positions were possible at the same time. The truth is, the evidence does not reveal a clear answer either way, despite vigorous scholarly debate.

The one thing that we do know with absolute certainty is that Denmark Vesey was executed. He was hung from a tree in the middle of Ashley Avenue, not far from where his monument now stands today. He was executed on dubious evidence for possibly thinking about violence, possibly planning on violence, but not actually committing any act of violence. But, the people who sentenced him to death deemed African American violence - or even the suspicion of violence - as inherently criminal and intrinsically indefensible. We may never know for sure what Vesey did or did not have planned in 1822. We do know, however, that his guilt was presumed and his death was assured based on the color of his skin.

And, as such, the monument to Denmark Vesey resonates with particularly profound meaning today. It is not a stretch to see how this perspective on Vesey's memory speaks as much to our modern struggles with race and violence as it does to our understanding of the past. In our modern era of "stand your ground" and "stop and frisk," the tragedy of systemic injustice for people of color continues to haunt us today, albeit in ways far more subtle and oblique than two hundred years ago. The system that executed Vesey in 1822 rationalized its decision through fears of racialized violence, a fact that feels tragically familiar in the age of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Today, as we continue to debate Vesey's historic legacy, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to answer unanswerable questions that will either vindicate his memory or demonize his character. Yet, in trying to make Vesey into either a saint or a devil, we tend to lose sight of the greater sorrows that lay behind his accusation and execution. As Vesey's monument stands now under the majestic oaks of Hampton Park, it serves as a poignant memorial to our nation's fraught history of race and justice.

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