Denmark Vesey: Freedom Fighter or Terrorist?

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There's no likeness of him, no record of a word he wrote or said directly, no marked grave. The slave rebellion he allegedly plotted --- which would've been the largest in U.S. history --- was scotched before it happened. Some historians believe there was no plot --- that the insurrection said to have called for the murder of every white in Charleston was concocted by white leaders for political advantage.

What isn't disputed: Denmark Vesey, a freed slave, was hanged in 1822 with 34 co-conspirators. It's believed to be the largest set of executions ordered by a U.S. court. Scholars regard Vesey as a precursor both to the Civil War and the civil rights movement, but he is among the most divisive figures most Southerners have never heard of. Here, many blacks exalt him as a freedom fighter, while some whites condemn him as a terrorist.

So it's hardly surprising that an attempt to erect a public monument to Vesey in Charleston has become one of the more enigmatic memorial ventures in the monument-happy South. It has been a decade-long odyssey, with only a fraction of the $200,000 needed raised so far.

"There are certain elements in the community who say, 'Over my dead body will this monument be put up,' " said James Smart, member of the Denmark Vesey and Spirit of Freedom Monument Committee. "But just as the black community is awash in being confronted with Confederate history, there is another history. It's inevitable this monument will be built."

Extraordinary story

The notion of a Vesey monument came about almost spontaneously. Henry Darby, then a high school history teacher, was walking through downtown Charleston in the mid-1990s when he remarked to a fellow African-American that among the city's armada of historic tributes, there was virtually nothing of significance memorializing blacks.

"There comes a time when African-Americans need to select their own heroes," said Darby, now an assistant high school principal and county councilman. "Nothing was ever named for Vesey, so I said we should do something with him. We would be coming from a historical perspective instead of a racial perspective. Few beyond the realm of history know anything about him."

Vesey's story is extraordinary, even stripped of historic heft.

He was captured in West Africa and sold in 1781 as a 14-year-old to Capt. Joseph Vesey in the Virgin Islands. Assigned to the captain's cabin, he learned to read, write and speak at least three languages.

Captain and slave settled in Charleston, the largest slave port in mainland North America.

Then Vesey got lucky: In 1799, he won a lottery. He bought his freedom with $600 from his $1,500 jackpot and worked as a carpenter, becoming outspoken about slavery's evils.

"He was bright, domineering and pretty frightening," said Vesey biographer Douglas Egerton.

By 1822, many historians say, Vesey had plotted an intricate rebellion: as many as 9,000 blacks, according to trial testimony, were to kill the city's whites, then sail to freedom in the black republic of Haiti.

Many historians say Vesey and his fellows intended to kill only those whites who got in their way --- not the indiscriminate slaughter portrayed during the trial.

"The fact that anybody who stands between him and his freedom is going to go doesn't concern him that much," Egerton said. "Nobody who gets to 55 in a slave society gets there by being soft."

But the plot imploded when a slave, hearing of it, informed his master. Vesey and his lieutenants were arrested and within days tried by a city court. Other followers, often after being tortured, testified to save their skins.

There is no testimony from Vesey in the transcript of the trial, from which the public and press were barred. He and 34 others were found guilty and hanged, their bodies dumped in unmarked graves.

The trial also led to the creation of the fortress-turned-military-college known as The Citadel, because whites wanted protection from future slave uprisings.

Darby's timing for a Vesey memorial was ideal. Three books were published in 1999 about Vesey and his thwarted rebellion. But as the memorial gained notice, talk radio lines lit up, with callers referring to Vesey, said talk show host Rocky Disabato, as "the guy who wanted to kill all the white people."

The local Post and Courier newspaper was inundated with letters, many from people aghast that Vesey could be memorialized.

One called Vesey an "advocate of ethnic cleansing." Another called his scheme "a Holocaust."

"The lore passed down is he had intentions of raping and pillaging," said Robert Hutson Jr., past president of the South Carolina Historical Society, whose family dates to Charleston's first mayor. "We don't memorialize people with intentions of that nature."

$25,000 earmarked

Lawyer and historian Robert Rosen, who then headed the arts and history commission, said a newspaper column he wrote supporting the monument prompted a call from a lawyer in an old-line Charleston family.

"He told me, 'I don't agree with you. If Denmark Vesey had succeeded in his plot, I would not be here,' " Rosen recalled. "I thought, 'Hmm, I can't really argue with that.' "

Still, in 2001, the city earmarked $25,000 for a monument. The Vesey committee wanted it built downtown in Marion Square, where The Citadel first stood and where John C. Calhoun, fiery defender of slavery, is memorialized.

But the city leases the park from two groups founded as 19th century militias. They vetoed the monument. The city offered Hampton Park, off the beaten path but near The Citadel's current campus.

Then a Johns Hopkins University historian published a paper that refuted the Vesey rebellion story.

Writing in the William and Mary Quarterly, Michael Johnson combed through the trial transcript and the day's political landscape. He contended the conspiracy had been concocted by Charleston's ambitious mayor and his allies, who fanned white paranoia to paint South Carolina's governor as ineffective.

The mayor later became governor. Johnson said testimony against Vesey was coerced through torture and life-saving deals. Vesey never admitted guilt.

"You need to look at the court, who was on it, what their motives were, and the evidence that he was guilty is not credible," said Johnson, who is expanding his research into a book. "His celebrity for historians and the city of Charleston comes because the court singles him out as a kind of Osama bin Laden of a slave conspiracy."

Johnson said Vesey, wrongly hanged, still deserves a monument. The trial led to a clampdown on blacks and calcified pro-slavery stands leading up to the Civil War.

"What he did was not monumental," Johnson said. "What was done to him was monumental."

Mayor Joe Riley agrees.

"He was a significant figure in the long span of the civil rights movement," he said. "There are different sides to the story. But in any event, he was a free black man trying to help enslaved Africans and it cost him his life. A monument to him is very important."

Shortage of cash

The Vesey committee recently concluded its call for monument designs. It received a handful, mostly from local sculptors, but is short of money to proceed much further.

Committee Vice Chairman Curtis Franks, a curator at the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston, said the grass-roots group's progress has been slowed by the conflicting demands of members' jobs and families.

The committee wants to involve the African Methodist Episcopal Church, of which Vesey was a member. And state Sen. Robert Ford, an African-American who represents Charleston, plans to introduce legislation next session that would appropriate state funds to the project.

Still, unlike the millions of dollars found to raise the Hunley --- the ballyhooed sunken Confederate submarine now preserved in Charleston --- a Vesey monument could be a tough sell.

The historical controversies don't help, nor does the lack of a Vesey image or writings or anything tangible from his life. (A painting of Vesey reading to a church group, imagined by a local artist, hangs in the city's Gaillard Auditorium.)

Smart said the monument could be up as early as next year. But some, including Egerton, doubt it will ever be erected.

When a monument to African-Americans in South Carolina history was proposed several years ago for the state capital grounds in Columbia, it was built after initial designs eliminated, among other things, Vesey's name.

"We still have racism, it's just more polite," said the Rev. Joseph Darby, minister at Charleston's Morris Brown AME Church, which traces it roots back to Vesey. "It's more in the form of questions about budgets, raising questions about history.

"The irony," Darby added of trying to memorialize Vesey's legacy, "is that those who killed him defined him."




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