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Review: 'Denmark Vesey's Garden' describes long shadow of slavery

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Denmark Vesey's Garden

"Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy" by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts

DENMARK VESEY’S GARDEN: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. By Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts. The New Press. 464 pages. $28.99.

A century and a half after the Civil War, our nation is still deeply mired in issues of race that are rooted in the past. Questions of race in college admissions or the display of Confederate symbols are two ongoing examples.

The writer James Baldwin captured the power of the past in our lives when he observed, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

This connection between the racial past and present is especially discernible in Charleston, where slavery was deeply entrenched.

“Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy” is the first book to examine how the historical memory of slavery shaped the culture and built environment in one of America’s most historic cities. Vesey was a slave who bought his freedom and, in 1822 when blacks outnumbered whites in Charleston, organized a slave rebellion that was put down before it could achieve its goals.

Asserting that in the United States there is no universally accepted understanding of slavery, the authors explain two main competing views. “Former slaveholders, their descendants and others have promoted a whitewashed memory, one that downplayed or even ignored slavery at times, only to cast it as benevolent and civilizing in other moments.” Contrastingly, former slaves, their descendants and allies viewed slavery “as a brutal, inhumane institution that has shaped who we are as a nation.”

The authors show how, after the Civil War, various Reconstruction policies were debated frequently with reference to slavery. Former slaveowners supported black codes to discipline the freedmen but ex-slaves denounced them as infringements on their liberty. Another development of this era regarding slave memory is the rise of the “Lost Cause” ideology. Authors Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle demonstrate that memorializing Confederate soldiers’ bravery while de-emphasizing slavery as a cause of the war, served as a counternarrative to Reconstruction.

Replacing slavery with states’ rights as a catalyst for war gave white Southerners the perfect challenge to federal policies, one that required forgetting slavery’s role in the conflict. Charleston became perhaps the most significant center for the perpetuation of the “Lost Cause” ideology and romanticized views of slavery, enslaved people and their descendants.

Roberts and Kytle use the memorialization of John C. Calhoun in the late 19th century as a powerful indicator of the era’s racial climate. They observe that the initial effort to build a statue honoring Calhoun dates to the 1850s, physically undergirding the idea that today’s monument (erected in the 1890s) is rooted in his stature as a major architect of the pro-slavery argument. This monument, they insightfully write, “Signaled an attachment to the racial ideology of the Old South in a more direct fashion than most Confederate monuments did.” That’s why critics have identified it for special opprobrium.

The authors, who have a keen sense of urban space, contend that locating the monument in the city’s center shows the centrality of white supremacy to Charleston’s late-19th-century social order. Those who dismiss contemporary opposition to the Calhoun Monument as misplaced “political correctness,” need to read “Denmark Vesey’s Garden,” which shows the deep provenance of black Charlestonians’ opposition to both Calhoun the man and the symbol.

As disfranchisement and segregation hardened, Charleston became what the authors call the “Cradle of the Lost Cause,” through the memory work of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. These groups continually disassociated slavery from the war and emphasized the “loyal slave” trope, which, by the early 20th century, was not just a regional phenomenon but a national one, Roberts and Kytle show. By the interwar years, Charleston had become its special purveyor as a significant tourist destination.

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Susan Pringle Frost’s Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings embedded white Charleston’s identity in buildings considered historically significant. Black Charlestonians were ignored, except when they were considered part of the exotic landscape. The visual artistry of Alice Ravenel Huger Smith and Elizabeth O’Neill Verner both show black Carolinians as romantic “racialized others.” The popularity of their works ensured that these stereotypical images rooted in slavery would become widespread.

This is reinforced by a discussion of the Society for the Preservation of the Spirituals beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Created by descendants of the planter class, these singers performed spirituals for decades as the quintessential plantation music for white audiences. Their cultural work conveyed nostalgia for the old plantation and reinforced the idea of the contented slave. Self-proclaimed white Gullah “experts” and performers amplified these slave memories by entertaining white patrons eager for the exotic language of the old plantations and city alleyways.

Finally, in 1938, Charleston’s Old Slave Mart opened as the country’s only slavery museum. From this special location, the proprietor claimed slavery’s abuses were exaggerated and that slave trading and family separations were rarities. Thus a solid cultural phalanx romanticized antebellum life and repackaged it into “the comforting commodity that locals would peddle for decades to come.”

Roberts and Kytle show that, during the civil rights era, black Charlestonians drew upon the past, particularly episodes from slavery, to energize their movement for racial justice. In 1958, African Americans petitioned the Charleston County Public Schools asking that black history be added to the curriculum. Black activists increasingly criticized groups such as the Society for the Preservation of the Spirituals for appropriating black culture and misrepresenting the past to justify the racial status quo.

In 1963, Charleston sit-in demonstrators sang spirituals to sustain their efforts. The power of the spirituals infused the Sea Islands’ citizenship schools, and South Carolina activists spread them to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s founding 1960 meeting in Raleigh, N.C.

The final parts of the book show how and why Charleston’s historical landscape changed to become more inclusive of the African-American experience since the 1970s. For example, Fort Sumter’s Visitor Center now incorporated slavery into its presentation, and the Charleston tour guide test preparation manual was revised to include elements of black life for the first time.

Today, most major historic sites and museums in Charleston include information about African-American life, although often unevenly, with many sites offering separate African-American history tours. This reality led the authors to note ironically that in the city’s “central industry” — tourism — segregation still rules.

After decades of struggle, the 2014 installation of the Denmark Vesey Monument in the city’s Hampton Park most compellingly demonstrated how white supremacy in the cityscape was being successfully challenged, according to authors.

In Charleston, “race and politics had been entangled with the azaleas, live oaks, and crape myrtles for decades, often choking off black memories of the past,” they explain. The book ends on a cautionary note, reminding us that racial change often comes at great sacrifice, and that progress summons forth determined, unprincipled opponents. The authors recount the white man, a neo-Confederate, who interrupted the prayer meeting at historic Emanuel AME Church with a murderous rampage designed to start a race war to re-establish white supremacy.

What followed was revulsion against pro-slavery and Confederate monuments across the nation and, finally, the removal of the Confederate flag flying on South Carolina’s Capitol grounds. Then Charlottesville confirmed the central point of “Vesey’s Garden”: Slavery’s dark shadow is long and yet to be vanquished.

Reviewer Bernard Powers is professor emeritus of history at the College of Charleston.

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