Terrorist or Revolutionary? The Rebel Still Dividing Charleston

Terrorist or Revolutionary? The Rebel Still Dividing Charleston

In 1822, Denmark Vesey was on the verge of executing a radical plan: for Black Charlestonians to revolt and rise up against the city’s white residents.

He’d amassed the support of hundreds of free and enslaved people, but his plan was leaked at the last minute, thwarting an uprising that could have changed history and setting the city of Charleston on edge.

More than 200 years later, Charleston is still grappling with his legacy. While some have mischaracterized Vesey as a terrorist of the antebellum era, academics and activists are fighting to give a more complete picture of the man who fought for African American liberty.

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

In an interview with The Daily Beast, International African American Museum director Dr. Tonya Matthews said it’s essential to give Vesey’s story proper context.

“Hunters will be heroes until lions become historians,” Matthews said, quoting an African proverb. “It’s the epitome of the conversation we’re having now about the African American journey.”

Denmark Vesey monument in Hampton Park in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Washington Post/Getty

In a partnership between the Charleston Gaillard Center, the International African American Museum—slated to open in 2023—and Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, the bicentenary of Vesey’s planned Charleston slave revolt will begin July 14, with events taking place through July 16.

“It’s about being able to just give a different narrative, a different narrative of a guy who is a revolutionary, a guy who is fighting to liberate his people from enslavement here in Charleston,” according to Mother Emanuel historian Lee Bennett.

In 1799, Vesey, an enslaved Black man, bought his freedom from Charleston slave trader Joseph Vesey after winning a city lottery. But Vesey was unable to purchase the freedom of his wife and child, who were the property of another enslaver.

After obtaining his freedom, Vesey opened a carpentry business and helped found the Black church that would later become Mother Emanuel A.M.E., where nine Black congregants were murdered in a white supremacist attack in 2015.

Matthews explained that like African Americans today, Vesey, as a liberated man, encountered progress in the midst of treacherous racial disparities in Charleston society.

“Arguably, this gentleman [Vesey] had achieved the version of the American dream that was available to very few of his kind at that time and was still not satisfied because of the specter of slavery,” Matthews told The Daily Beast. “His family was still enslaved; his neighbors were still enslaved. He was forced to walk the streets and watch people who looked like him be brutalized.”

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

Historian Lee Bennett

In the shadow of the 1739 Stono slave rebellion, during which enslaved Black people forged a deadly uprising to escape from South Carolina to Florida, and inspired by the Haitian Revolution that caused white enslavers to flee the Caribbean island, Vesey orchestrated a plot for Black people in Charleston—both enslaved and free—to rise up against the white elite in 1822. At the time, the majority of the Charleston population was Black, which gave them an upper hand in overpowering the city’s white residents.

The plot was set for July 14, Bastille Day, the anniversary of the French Revolution.

But Vesey’s bold plan to murder white enslavers in Charleston and escape to the newly emancipated Haiti was botched when word spread about the attack. According to the National Park Service, two enslaved Black men leaked information about the rebellion, and white Charlestonians immediately went on guard. Vesey and his co-conspirators were arrested, interrogated, tortured, and paraded through town on coffins before they were hanged.

But Vesey’s legacy did not end at the gallows.

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

The city of Charleston went on the offense. Enslaved Black people were issued badges by their owners so they could be tracked, and The Citadel of South Carolina—which later became the military college—was established to thwart any other planned slave attacks. Charleston also increased its police force, and postmasters refused to deliver mail containing abolitionist messages. Bennett explained that enslavers would pay to send enslaved Black people to the city’s Work House, a kind of correctional facility, for punishment and torture if they rebelled in any way.

“The Work House is if you wanted to get your slaves’ mind[s] right, you could send your slaves to the Work House to be beaten for a fee and then returned back to you,” he said. “The city ran the Work House.”

Decades after the thwarted rebellion, Vesey remained a “boogeyman” in the South, where the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned white-washed history books for public schools to teach the so-called civility and gentleness of enslavement. The books implemented white revisionist history until the 1980s, continuously spreading false narratives to generations of children.

“When I grew up in Charleston, we were all educated in something called The Simms History book,” Bennett said. “They were taught in the schools…and it was because the Daughters of the Confederacy had so much influence on the educational system. …What’s in the Simms History book? A whole different perspective, things like the Civil War has nothing to do with slavery at all; it was about states’ rights, and it was referred to as the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ or the ‘War Between the States,’ those type of impactful things.”

Instead of viewing Vesey as a liberator fighting for his people, he was branded a monster trying to disrupt the system. Bennett compared the twisted narrative of Vesey’s life to the current obsession over Critical Race Theory.

“We always have to find a boogeyman and [Critical Race Theory] is the new boogeyman,” Bennett elaborated. While CRT is an advanced academic study of how race impacts society, social conservatives have erroneously claimed its teaching young children to despise white people.

Instead of parents being concerned about their children being taught identity politics, Bennett says that adults should more so be focused on whether or not students are learning “accurate history,” including on controversial figures like Vesey.

“So, we just want to talk about a different narrative. What’s wrong with having a Black hero?” Bennett said.

At the end of the day, you’re not talking about someone who’s taking on violence for violence. You’re not talking about someone who is simply trying to terrorize a nation.

Dr. Tonya Matthews

Despite centuries of inequities, Charleston has made racial progress. In 2014, after years of activists calling for a memorial to honor Vesey, a monument was finally dedicated to the freedom fighter near the current location of The Citadel, where the first Memorial Day was held to celebrate enslaved soldiers who fought in the Civil War. A year later, a Confederate flag was finally removed from the South Carolina state house by an activist.

But correcting Vesey’s story has still been a battle. In 2010, a statue to honor Vesey in Charleston remained a point of contention, with one writer for the Charleston City Paper branding him a terrorist.

“Erecting a statue to honor Vesey is admitting that terrorism is sometimes justified, depending on the cause. But for civilized people, terrorism should never be justified—and neither should Denmark Vesey,” he wrote.

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

“As with other recent acts of vandalism against our city’s monuments, we will repair this 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 that we are all making together.”

The struggle to reframe Vessey is emblematic of the broader fight to address the legacy of slavery across Charleston, where until just two years ago, one of the institution’s most ardent supporters, John C. Calhoun, stood tall in the city’s center. The Citadel, located near Vesey’s statue, still plays “Dixie” at football games as fans wave Confederate flags.

And just last week, a group of Confederate sympathizers held a rally outside the South Carolina statehouse on the anniversary the flag was removed, the Cola Daily reported.

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

At the bicentenary this week, historians and racial activists will discuss the city’s long history with chattel enslavement and Vesey’s mission to liberate Black Charlestonians. Bennett will moderate a panel, which will include Matthews, political comedian W. Kamau Bell, media personality and Charleston native Charlamagne tha God, Avery Research Center’s Dr. Tamara Butler, College of Charleston Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston director Dr. Bernard Powers, and Kennedy Center artistic director BAMUTHI.

“At the end of the day, you’re not talking about someone who’s taking on violence for violence. You’re not talking about someone who is simply trying to terrorize a nation,” Matthews asserted. “You’re talking about someone who is fighting for the freedom of others, and it’s ironic that in and of itself, is quintessentially American.”

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