Review of “Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy” by Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts

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tags: Blain Roberts, book review, Denmark Veseys Garden, Ethan Kytle



Mr. Harris is an independent historian and a regular contributor to the History News Network. For more information see www.JamesThorntonHarris.com

On March 21, 1865, the recently emancipated black residents of Charleston South Carolina, staged a parade to celebrate their new freedom. The city had been taken a month earlier by Union Army troops led by a thousand soldiers from the 21st United States Colored troops. When the parade got underway, it was led by the black soldiers, marching in formation, followed by more than five thousand people. 

New York Tribunereporter James Redpath, described the procession as “a celebration of their deliverance from bondage … a jubilee of freedom.” One of the most striking scenes, Redpath noted was large mule-drawn cart with a sign that said “Negroes for Sale.” Behind the auction cart marched a mock slave “coffle,” sixty men tied together by a rope. A black man playing the role of auctioneer cried out to the crowds, “How much am I offered for this good cook? Who will bid?”

Although most of the crowd laughed and jeered at the sham auction scene, Redpath observed some older women who “burst into tears as they saw this tableau, and forgetting that it was a mimic scene, shouted wildly, ‘Give me back my children! Give me back my children.”

This parade is just one of dozens of events depicted in Denmark Vesey’s Garden, Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, a new book by authors Blaine Roberts and Ethan Kytle. Both authors are history professors at California State University, Fresno and have written previously about the South. Kytle is the author ofRomantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era. Roberts’s previous book is Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South.

As the subtitle of their book indicates, this book is about slavery and memory. By focusing on Charleston, the “cradle of the confederacy,” the authors provide the reader with a year-by-year account of the rise of Jim Crow and the local effort to “whitewash” the cruel tragedy of black slavery. While a valuable addition to scholars of Southern history, the general reader will find it very interesting because of the many personal stories, black and white, the book contains.

The authors have done a good job of including black voices, which are often missing from history books describing the nineteenth century. They have tapped local archives with letters from black citizens, church sermons and the archives of the interviews of former slaves conducted by the federal Works Progress Administration.

Kytle and Roberts chronicle the fifty-year long transition, from the brief period of celebration enjoyed by the emancipated slaves, through the brief, failed attempt at Reconstruction to the imposition of Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s. They draw on a variety of sources, including newspaper reports, letters and documents from local archives and the trove of interviews of former slaves conducted by the writers in the Federal Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. 

By focusing on the people of Charleston, they construct a fascinating narrative of a how the South resisted the Republican Party’s policy of Reconstruction. In a way, the book reminded me of Stephen Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. By focusing on a small community and individual stories we gain insight into a complex, continent-wide catastrophe that is otherwise hard to grasp. 

The authors say they chose Charleston because “it was the capital of American slavery…. If Philadelphia and Boston serve as the clearest windows into our nation’s colonial and Revolutionary-era history, Charleston is the best portal to the antebellum South.” They note that “nearly half the slaves transported for sale in this country first set foot on North American soil in Charleston or on neighboring Sea Islands.” 

As it turned out, the huge parade by blacks in 1865 was the highwater mark of the post-Civil War freedom enjoyed by the local emancipated community. Within a decade, the Union Army troops had left and the white residents and ex-confederate soldiers had begun to reassert their authority. Voting rights for blacks were restricted and Jim Crow laws mandating segregated, second-class public facilities took effect.

In Charleston, dozens of plaques, memorials and statues honoring the Confederacy appeared, while all traces of slavery were conveniently “whitewashed” (e.g. ignored or depicted in benign terms). Slave auction houses were converted into stores, rickety slave cabins dismantled and black celebrations suppressed. 

While some of the Confederate statues have been removed or augmented with modern historical explanations, a forty-foot tall monument to John C. Calhoun still towers over the city. Calhoun, a white supremacist who served as a congressman, U.S. Senator and Vice President (under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson) died in 1850. He had threatened secession as early as 1830 and he vilified Northern abolitionists, who he accused of striking “directly and fatally not only at our prosperity, but our existence as a people.”

After his death in 1850, local leaders placed a giant marble block over his tomb in a local church cemetery. The marble monument was chipped and defaced in the years after 1865. In 1884, the Ladies Confederate Memorial Association commissioned a large monument, one tall enough to be out of reach of vandals. It remains in place today, a bronze statue of the Senator atop a 40-foot lump of granite, watching over the city. 

One of the interesting aspects brought out in the book is the how the rhetoric of “Lost Cause” advocates reflected a conflicted, hypocritical position on slavery. 

Kytle and Roberts point out that “Lost Causers deployed two distinct arguments. Some attempted to absolve the South of responsibility for slavery. Others mounted a full-throated defense of the institution as a civilizing institution.” 

In supporting the first argument, defenders of the Confederate memorialists “insisted that slavery was a burden that had been imposed on the South by outsiders.” For example, Edward McCrady, a prominent Charleston attorney and leader of a local Confederate war veterans association defended slavery at a veterans’ gathering in 1882. “We of this generation had no part in the establishment of slavery in this country,” he asserted. 

Instead, McCrady “pointed his finger” at England and the North, whose merchants dominated the slave trade. He said they had transported thousands of slaves to Charleston and then cast them off to be cared for by South Carolinians. Thus, McCrady’s speech assured the veterans that “slavery was a burden that had been imposed on the South by outsiders.”

The second part of the Lost Cause argument was that slavery had been a humane, civilizing institution. The blacks enslaved on the South’s plantations were better off than their brothers and sisters left in Africa.

In March 1861, At the very beginning of the Civil War, Alexander Stephens, the Vice President of the Confederate government, declared in his famous “Cornerstone Speech” that slavery was the natural condition of blacks. The new secessionist government was founded on “upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition."

A decade later, as Jim Crow laws and continual physical and psychological violence impeded black progress, Lost Cause defenders suggested that emancipation had been a mistake. The authors note this enabled them to “not only venerate the past but also to critique the present.” 

They cite an article by J. Colton Lyons, a Citadel professor, who wrote at the beginning of the 20th century that “as a rule, those negroes who are old enough to have experience … do not hesitate to declare that the state of bondage was far happier” than the restricted “freedom” they now lived under. 

Today, Charleston, with its many beautiful antebellum homes and historic Fort Sumter is the region’s major tourist attraction. A small city of just 100,000 residents, it now attracts some five million visitors a year. Although for much of the twentieth century, the region’s history of slavery was whitewashed, it is now cautiously acknowledged. A dozen monuments, plaques and a new museum accurately depict the brutality of slavery. Several local guide companies offer “history of slavery” tours, complete with journeys to restored slave quarters on local plantations. 

Denmark Vesey’s Garden, the memorial named in the book’s title, is located in a quiet park on the northern part of the city. Vesey, a symbol of antebellum black resistance, was the leader of a planned slave revolt in 1822. Betrayed by an informer, Vesey was captured, tortured and hanged, along with 30 additional blacks accused of conspiracy. The revolt never happened and no white person was injured.

His statue and garden, created in 2014, was the result of a twenty-five-year effort to create a memorial for him. Local historian Bernard Powers stated “the monument changes the landscape by now offering a counterpoint to those other monuments to white supremacy that populate Charleston’s streets.”

The debate over Confederate monuments continues almost daily in many cities and states. Denmark Vesey’s Gardenand its detailed account of the struggles in Charleston provides a valuable new perspective on why certain groups in the South cling to a “whitewashed” version of history when most Americans are seeking to learn more about slavery and its deep impact on American life. 

Q & A with the Authors

James Thornton Harris: Your book focuses on the issue of “whitewashing” the history of slavery in the City of Charleston, S.C. One place we see this sort of misrepresentation of the past is with Confederate monuments, most of which were erected a century ago. Why do you think this national conversation about Confederate monuments is occurring now? 

Ethan J. Kytle: This conversation really kicked off three years ago, in response to the tragic murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston by white supremacist Dylann Roof. Roof’s support for slavery and the Confederacy that waged war to protect it, as well as his affinity for the Confederate flag, forced many people across the country to consider, perhaps for the first time, whether it was acceptable that Confederate and other proslavery symbols still enjoy a prominent place in American culture. 

But as we explore in our book, this conversation is far from new. In Charleston, black residents have protested Confederate and white supremacist memorials for more than a century. Most of their ire has been directed at two towering monuments to South Carolina statesman John C. Calhoun, a great defender of slavery who famously insisted that the institution was “a positive good.” Black Charlestonians repeatedly mocked and vandalized those two monuments, from the late 1800s, when they were installed in a prominent spot in the center of the city, through World War II.

So, while the scope of the debate over Confederate monuments has changed considerably over the last few years, it draws on long-standing arguments against memorials that whitewash our enslaved past.

James Thornton Harris: Your book ends on a generally upbeat note. Charleston seems to have reached an accommodation between the demands for black history and preservation of Confederate monuments. What lessons, if any, can other cities learn from the Charleston experience? 

Blain Roberts:In recent years, Charleston has done a much better job of acknowledging its enslaved and black past by erecting new historical markers and statues and developing new black history tours. But Charleston teaches us that change does not come easily or quickly. In 2014, activists erected a monument to Denmark Vesey, who plotted a failed 1822 slave insurrection. Yet it took them almost twenty years to do so. The opposition to their project was powerful.

While I’m generally hopeful that Charleston and other cities will continue to make their commemorative landscapes reflect a more accurate and diverse history, it’s been dismaying to see so many state legislatures pass laws making it next to impossible to remove or even contextualize problematic memorials. And in Charleston, an effort to contextualize the monument of John C. Calhoun has stalled because of disagreements about the language. There is reason to worry that the final text may dilute the goal of the project—which is to highlight Calhoun’s pro-slavery political career. 

James Thornton Harris: At one point in your book, you mention the general lack of awareness about slavery and the Civil War among many tourists visiting Charleston. Is this a result of our current educational system? Do you have any recommendations for K-12 educators to improve knowledge of slavery and its role in American history?

Blain Roberts:The recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s, “Teaching Hard History,” provides ample evidence of our failures in adequately teaching slavery in K-12 classrooms, as do the regular news stories on ill-conceived classroom assignments (“list four reasons Africans made good slaves,” for example).    

Right here in the Central Valley of California, a middle school in Madera recently wrapped up its unit on Civil War history by hosting a Civil War Ball. The ball was framed as a celebration of the war’s end. Male students wore Union and Confederate uniforms; female students wore hoop skirts.  In one sense, it was a classic, Gone with the Wind kind-of-affair.  In another, it was reconciliationist and completely ahistorical—apparently no one thought it was odd that students dressed as both Union and Confederate soldiers were dancing the night away at a ball to mark the Confederacy’s defeat. And, of course, such an event inevitably papers over slavery as cause of the war and ignores the perspective of the enslaved. An African American parent complained about the ball and she got nowhere. We are now in touch with her and hope to work together to help the principal and teachers understand why a Civil War ball perpetuates bad history.  

So, my advice is actually geared toward history professors: collaborating with K-12 teachers is one of the most important things we can do as historians.  Teachers want good information. We need to offer our knowledge and expertise whenever and however we can.

James Thornton Harris: You are currently teaching at a large state university. When you discuss slavery in American history in the classroom, what is the reaction of your students? Are they interested? Do they see it as relevant to 21stcentury American problems?

Ethan J. Kytle:Most of my students are eager to explore the history of slavery, which, as a nineteenth-century American historian, I touch on in every class I teach at Fresno State. Some of them tell me that they have been exposed to the topic quite a bit in high school. In general, though, students in my classes say that they learned very little about slavery, or at least very little that was accurate, before they got to college. They are often shocked, for instance, when confronted with the brutal realities of slavery or the extent to which the institution shaped the growth and prosperity of the United States. 

Many students are also surprised to learn that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. I’ve lost count of the number of times that students—almost all of whom were educated here in California’s Central Valley—have told me that their high school history teachers echoed the Lost Cause canard that the Civil War was fought over as states’ rights or high tariffs. As a result, I devote the first week of my seminar on the Civil War to the memory of the conflict. We consider the origins of the Lost Cause and how it continues to distort the way that the Civil War is taught—and not just in the South. 


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