"We may have come over in different ships, but we are all in the same boat today."
- Yolanda King, Jan. 15, 1974
On March 1, 2000 (14 years ago yesterday), the Arts and History Commission of the City of Charleston debated thematic approval of an application by a committee of Charlestonians to place a statue of Denmark Vesey in Hampton Park. The commissioners debated whether Vesey, a free black Charlestonian who organized an aborted slave revolt in 1822, should be honored by a monument.
Vesey and 34 of his followers were executed for planning "to riot in blood, outrage, rapine ... and conflagration." Vesey and his followers, the authorities charged, planned to murder every white man, woman and child, and burn the city down. Vesey's plot and hanging "lit a fuse to Fort Sumter," according to some historians.
Should Denmark Vesey and his followers have been honored as heroes? Should City Council have appropriated $25,000 toward the monument?
White Charlestonians whose ancestors lived here in 1822 certainly cannot be faulted for having reservations about honoring Denmark Vesey.
"The white children of Charleston always remembered the night of June 16, 1822," David Robertson wrote in "Denmark Vesey," "even those who lived until the early twentieth century ... could vividly recall ... when there were whispered stories of cruel black men who would slit the throats of white children." A 1964 letter to the editor of the News and Courier referred to "Vesey and his voo-doo band of brigands."
At their trial, many of Vesey's followers did not dispute the allegations. (Vesey's testimony was never published.)
The great Charleston lawyer, Henry Smythe, told me in 2000 that, had Vesey's plot succeeded, he would never have been born!
Black Charlestonians, however, see him differently. The committee's application stated that the monument would serve a fourfold purpose:
1) To call to the attention of the people of the Lowcountry and visitors the efforts of African Americans to secure their freedom.
2) To give contemporary recognition to the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, an event for which antebellum Charleston was so well known, and to place it in its historical perspective.
3) To educate and promote an abiding understanding of the African American experience.
4) To demonstrate the universality of men and women's desire for freedom and justice irrespective of race, creed, condition or color.
Many undoubtedly agree with Rolla Bennett, a co-conspirator of Vesey's, when he said Vesey "was the first to rise up and speak, and he read to us from the Bible, how the Children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage."
Officials of the NAACP and other black leaders believe Vesey was a "hero and martyr."
Certainly the applicants to the Arts and History Commission believed Vesey should be honored for his resistance to slavery, as did Frederick Douglass and Union Army officials, who included Vesey's son, Robert, in the ceremony raising the United States flag over Fort Sumter in 1865.
"The execution of Denmark Vesey," Douglas R. Egerton wrote in "He Shall Go Out Free," "elevated an obscure carpenter into a national martyr and a symbol of struggle for the African-American and abolitionist communities."
Who is right? The answer is that there is no answer. History can be used for any purpose. The British view of the American Revolution certainly differs from ours. Presumably, Egyptians have a different view of their Pharaoh than the Children of Israel do. Professor Marvin Dulaney has said in relation to the Confederate flag issue that the controversy was about "black and white Southerners' different understandings of the past."
Dr. Martin Luther King had an answer. "My people were brought to America in chains," he told a Jewish audience. "Your people were driven here to escape the chains fashioned for them in Europe. Our unity is born of our common struggle ..."
South Carolina was populated by English Protestants seeking a better life, French Huguenots escaping religious persecution, German Lutherans fleeing oppression, Irish Catholics escaping poverty. Our unity is born of our common struggle.
The Vesey project was granted approval and the statue was erected in Hampton Park two weeks ago, not because everyone agreed that Denmark Vesey was a hero, but because he is a hero to many of our fellow citizens whose heritage includes resistance - even violent resistance - to slavery, which, by the way, was enforced by violence.
The monument to Denmark Vesey stands in Hampton Park, named for Wade Hampton, probably the richest planter and largest slaveholder in the South and a Confederate general.
After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Gov. Hampton tried his best to heal the racial divide in South Carolina by protecting and helping the black citizens of South Carolina. When he died in 1902, his last words were "God bless all my people, black and white."
A monument to a leader of slaves in a park named for a leader of slaveholders recalls Dr. King's famous words in Washington in 1963: "I have a dream that one day ... the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."
There is no way to reconcile the different views of history in the ongoing debate over the Civil War, the Confederate flag, or Denmark Vesey.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the NAACP and others do us all a disservice by equating the Confederate flag with the Nazi flag and racism and calling monuments to the Confederacy "symbols of immorality and wrong." Those charges are wrong-headed and divisive.
This negative rhetoric conjures up images of the French Revolution when monuments to the Old Regime were destroyed, religious images were smashed, and even the calendar was rewritten in order to symbolically replace the old France with "a whole new world of morally cleansed images."
In Revolutionary France, history was used, like a powerful drug, filling people with bitterness and anger. Surely we do not want to do the same here and now. We need not go down that path. History, like any branch of knowledge, can be called upon, for good or for ill.
To paraphrase Acton, history can deliver us from the undue influence of both other times and our own times. What all South Carolinians deserve is respect for their different heritages and histories. "Tolerance Avenue," Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell wrote correctly, "is a two-way street."
At Clemson University, the tallest building on the campus is Tillman Hall, named for "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman. Tillman was instrumental in creating what is now Clemson University, for which he should be honored. But he was also a racist demagogue and, as senator from South Carolina, he defended the lynching of blacks on the floor of the United States Senate. He himself was a participant in the Hamburg Massacre when armed white men killed unarmed black men. He certainly aided and abetted murder.
Should Tillman Hall be renamed? There are monuments, streets and towns all over South Carolina named for white men who oppressed black men. Are we going to rename every building and street and remove every monument? Are we going to rewrite, cleanse, censor and edit our history?
No. It is what it is. Our history includes Denmark Vesey, Wade Hampton and Ben Tillman. It includes Confederate monuments and black leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
Maybe Denmark Vesey should have acted more nobly. But maybe Wade Hampton and Ben Tillman should have also.
Robert N. Rosen is the author of "A Short History of Charleston" and was chairman of the Arts and History Commission for the City of Charleston when the Vesey monument was approved.
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