For years, this city has debated whether to erect a monument to one of its most divisive figures—Denmark Vesey, the convicted plotter of a 19th-century slave rebellion.
In 1822 Vesey was found guilty of planning what would have been the biggest slave uprising in U.S. history. He was hanged along with 34 other blacks in what historians agree was probably the largest civil execution in U.S history.
Today he’s marked only by a plaque on what may have been his house and by two paintings based on artists’ conceptions of what he may have looked like. He left no records or writings. His descendants scattered.
Quest for a monument
At the time of Vesey’s conviction, Charleston was America’s chief slave port and one of its tensest cities. Whites—outnumbered three to one by slaves—were haunted by memories of a 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti.
The Vesey affair seemed to confirm those fears. Afterward, whites became more militant in their support of slavery and more antagonistic toward Northern abolitionists. South Carolina cracked down on blacks’ rights and Charleston built a fortress and military academy, The Citadel.
Then, in 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led an actual—though futile—rebellion in Virginia. A fuse had been lit that would burn until the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the start of the Civil War in 1861.
Ever since, many whites in Charleston saw Vesey as a killer, while many blacks saw him as a freedom fighter.
About 20 years ago, an African-American social studies teacher named Henry Darby decided that Vesey, buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown location, deserved a monument.
In 1822, according to the summary, a slave told authorities about a planned uprising. Vesey was arrested, and subsequent testimony put him at the center of a plot.
According to one witness, Vesey secretly urged followers to allow “no white soul (to) survive.” When asked about innocent women and children, he allegedly replied, according to trial records, “What was the use of killing the louse and leaving the nit?”
Plans move ahead
Within a few years, however, the city had promised $20,000 toward a Vesey memorial and provided a site in a municipal park. This summer, the Charleston County Council voted $40,000 for the memorial, and the city tentatively approved the design, which features a 7-foot statue of Vesey holding a Bible in one hand and carpentry tools in the other.
The news provoked virtually no negative reaction—a sign to Darby (who was elected to the county council four years ago) that “Charleston has come of age. We no longer marginalize black history.”
Historians such as Michael Johnson of Johns Hopkins have replaced the old Vesey question—good guy or bad guy?—with another: Was he the author of a black conspiracy or the victim of a white one?
Johnson has concluded “there was no plot. . . . Slaves and free people of color talked about freedom a lot, and at the trial that talk was amplified into a conspiracy.”
Johnson says the real motive for the trials was the desire of the city’s hard-line mayor, James Hamilton Jr., to embarrass Gov. Thomas Bennett Jr., a moderate on slavery, and that Vesey’s real heroism was his refusal to give false testimony.
Douglas Egerton, a historian at Le Moyne College in New York, who has written about the affair, says Vesey indeed was the plot mastermind.
Darby says that although he believes Vesey did plot rebellion, it doesn’t matter: “Whether one looks at him as a freedom fighter or as a victim, the fact remains that he was a black man who hated slavery and was executed for a cause.”