In 1799, Denmark Vesey won $1,500 in the East Bay Lottery. He spent part of the money, $600, to purchase his freedom.
Vesey would go on to help start Hampstead AME Church downtown and agitate for others' education and freedom. The violence perpetrated by whites against blacks - attacks both legal and physical, including assaults on the church - convinced him that rebellion was justified.
Vesey and his co-conspirators plotted insurrection but were exposed by informants. The repercussions were fierce: Vesey and 34 others were publicly hanged, 37 more were banished, four whites were fined and the church building was destroyed.
The rebellion struck such fear into the hearts of the white minority at the time, they insisted on answering it with brutality and newly organized militias to keep the city's blacks under control.
That history was recognized Saturday in Hampton Park when a monument to Vesey was unveiled before several speakers and hundreds of appreciative onlookers. It was a long time coming. The monument committee was formed in 1996 by Charleston County Councilman Henry Darby and Curtis Franks of the Avery Research Center; it took 18 years to see the effort through to completion.
The city provided critical support, including a corner of the park and careful landscaping that began three years ago. The monument, a life-size rendering of Vesey, was made by Ed Dwight, a Colorado-based artist.
Committee members and speakers all said the monument was an important step taken to fill in the historical gaps - to widen recognition of slavery's terrible legacy and the full cost of freedom. Vesey's actions of 1822 can inspire anyone who cares about liberty, Franks said. "The spirit of freedom is so pervasive."
Mayor Joe Riley, admiring the site, said it was neither hidden nor too prominent, affording people a contemplative spot to pay their respects to an important historical figure.
"The undeniable fact is this: Denmark Vesey was free," Riley told the assembly. "He was a free black man, No one owned him. ... He risked his life and gave his life to make enslaved people free."
The Rev. Joe Darby, speaking as a leader of the AME Church, was perhaps the most outspoken about the controversies surrounding Vesey and the effort to memorialize him.
"Some people see Denmark Vesey as a dangerous terrorist," Darby said. "Most see him as a freedom fighter. My hope is that this monument will add to the full story of our southern heritage."
Committee member Dorothy Wright echoed the need to tell the whole story of America's history.
"We did not come to glorify or complain, we came to notate and explain," she said.
College of Charleston history professor Bernard Powers said too many people don't know about Vesey.
"Today, many people are still unable or unwilling to grasp the pertinence of slavery and freedom," he said. "They don't have the conceptual framework or proper vocabulary to understand Denmark Vesey."
Vesey had known what it was like to be someone else's property, and he had known about the suffering experienced by captured Africans during the Middle Passage: he had been sold at 14 to the captain of a slave ship and accompanied him on many trading voyages.
In 1783, Vesey relocated to Charleston where he remained enslaved for another 17 years - until luck set him free and outrage at injustice led to doom.
He had hoped liberated blacks, in the wake of insurrection, would escape to Haiti, which was the only place in the world where a slave revolt had been successfully accomplished, Powers said. Years later, as blacks were recruited to fight in the Civil War against the Confederacy they were implored to remember Vesey. In this way the links of history form a chain, Powers said.
Henry Darby, chairman of the monument committee and member of City Council, was recognized as the main force behind the effort. He, in turn, acknowledged Franks and many others who persevered, often against the odds.
"Frequently bewildered, we never relented, frequently disappointed, we pressed forward," he said.
And now, finally, one of Charleston's most important historical figures has found a prominent place under the oaks of Hampton Park.
Hundreds turned out for the unveiling of the Denmark Vesey monument in Hampton Park on Saturday. The project was many years in the making.×
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