Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Vesey Still Stirring Things Up.

By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
CHARLESTON, S.C. — For years, this city has debated whether to erect a monument to one of its most divisive figures — Denmark Vesey, the convicted plotter of a 19th-century slave rebellion.

Now, just when the monument builders have the upper hand, there's another question: Which Vesey should be memorialized?

The one who incited slaves to burn down the city, kill the whites, steal the ships and sail to freedom in Haiti? Or the one who, says the author of an upcoming book, was an innocent victim — framed by one white politician to discredit another?

In 1822 Vesey was found guilty of planning what would have been the biggest slave uprising in U.S. history. He was hanged along with 34 other blacks in what historians agree was probably the largest civil execution in U.S history.

Today he's marked only by a plaque on what may have been his house and by two paintings based on artists' conceptions of what he may have looked like. He left no records or writings. His descendants scattered.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: SC | African-American | Charleston | Michael Johnson

Quest for a monument

At the time of Vesey's conviction, Charleston was America's chief slave port and one of its tensest cities. Whites — outnumbered three to one by slaves — were haunted by memories of a 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti.

The Vesey affair seemed to confirm those fears. Afterward, whites became more militant in their support of slavery and more antagonistic toward Northern abolitionists. South Carolina cracked down on blacks' rights and Charleston built a fortress and military academy, The Citadel.

Then, in 1831, a slave named Nat Turner led an actual — though futile — rebellion in Virginia. A fuse had been lit that would burn until the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and the start of the Civil War in 1861.

Ever since, many whites in Charleston saw Vesey as a killer, while many blacks saw him as a freedom fighter.

About 20 years ago, an African-American social studies teacher named Henry Darby decided that Vesey, buried in an unmarked grave in an unknown location, deserved a monument.

Although Charleston is obsessed by history and filled with memorials, he says, there's none to the blacks who built the city. "I thought we should do something for Denmark Vesey," he says. "His story needed to be told."

According to historical accounts, the story began around 1767 in the West Indies, where he was born into slavery. He was sold to a slave ship captain named Vesey, whom he accompanied on voyages around the Atlantic. The young slave learned to read and write, mastered several languages and became a skilled carpenter.

Around 1783 the captain moved to Charleston with his slave, who hired himself out as a carpenter and became a lay leader of the African Episcopal Methodist church. In 1799 he won a lottery and bought his freedom for $600.

Vesey was outspoken — he read the Book of Exodus as a liberation lesson for slaves — and charismatic — "looked up to with respect and awe" by others of his race, according to the judges' official summary of his trial.

In 1822, according to the summary, a slave told authorities about a planned uprising. Vesey was arrested, and subsequent testimony put him at the center of a plot.

According to one witness, Vesey secretly urged followers to allow "no white soul (to) survive." When asked about innocent women and children, he allegedly replied, according to trial records, "What was the use of killing the louse and leaving the nit?"

Those words were handed from generation to generation in Charleston. When Darby advanced his proposal in 2000, a flood of letters to the Charleston Post and Courier accused Vesey of having plotted "ethnic cleansing"; "nothing less than a Holocaust"; "mass murder."

Plans move ahead

Within a few years, however, the city had promised $20,000 toward a Vesey memorial and provided a site in a municipal park. This summer, the Charleston County Council voted $40,000 for the memorial, and the city tentatively approved the design, which features a 7-foot statue of Vesey holding a Bible in one hand and carpentry tools in the other.

The news provoked virtually no negative reaction — a sign to Darby (who was elected to the county council four years ago) that "Charleston has come of age. We no longer marginalize black history."

Mayor Joe Riley, who is white, attributes the change in part to curiosity: "We all want to know what happened. We want the empty pages of history to be filled in."

There lies the rub.

Historians such as Michael Johnson of Johns Hopkins have replaced the old Vesey question — good guy or bad guy? — with another: Was he the author of a black conspiracy or the victim of a white one?

Johnson has concluded "there was no plot. … Slaves and free people of color talked about freedom a lot, and at the trial that talk was amplified into a conspiracy."

In a forthcoming book, Johnson argues that testimony against Vesey was coerced under "emotional duress and sometimes torture" from slaves who feared for their lives.

Johnson says the real motive for the trials was the desire of the city's hard-line mayor, James Hamilton Jr., to embarrass Gov. Thomas Bennett Jr., a moderate on slavery, and that Vesey's real heroism was his refusal to give false testimony.

Douglas Egerton, a historian at Le Moyne College in New York, who has written about the affair, says Vesey indeed was the plot mastermind.

Egerton says that just because testimony is coerced doesn't mean it's false, and that other blacks, including some who'd reached safety in the North, agreed there had been a plot led by Vesey.

If Vesey was a victim, will there be enough enthusiasm to raise the several hundred thousand dollars still needed for the monument?

Darby says that although he believes Vesey did plot rebellion, it doesn't matter: "Whether one looks at him as a freedom fighter or as a victim, the fact remains that he was a black man who hated slavery and was executed for a cause."

........"He then read in the Bible where God commanded, that all should be cut off, both men, women and children, and he said, he believed, it was no sin for us to do so, for the Lord had commanded us to do it." --Testimony of Rolla, belonging to Thomas Bennett, recorded in the Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822

In 1771, fourteen-year-old Denmark Vesey was transported from St. Thomas to Cape Francais by slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey. Upon a return trip to Cape Francais, Captain Vesey was forced to reclaim Denmark, who his master said was suffering from epileptic fits. Denmark accompanied Captain Vesey on his trading voyages until the Captain retired to Charleston, never again showing signs of epilepsy.

In 1799, Vesey won the lottery and bought his freedom for $600. He could not purchase the freedom of his wife and children, however, and some claimed that this fact motivated his crusade to destroy the institution of slavery.

Vesey joined the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. He became a "class leader," preaching to a small group in his home during the week. White Charlestonians constantly monitored the African church, disrupting services and arresting members. An angry Vesey began preaching from the Old Testament, particularly Exodus, and taught followers that they were the New Israelites, the chosen people whose enslavement God would punish with death.

In 1822, Vesey and other leaders from the African Church began plotting a rebellion. His chief lieutenant was an East African priest named Gullah Jack, who led conspirators in prayer and rituals and gave them amulets to protect them in battle. Vesey's theology of liberation, combined with Gullah Jack's African mysticism, inspired potential participants, and word of the rebellion grew. Vesey set the date for revolt on July 14, and men from Charleston and surrounding plantations planned to seize Charleston's arsenals and guard houses, kill the Governor, set fire to the city, and kill every white man they saw. But in June, several nervous slaves leaked the plot to their masters, and Charleston authorities began arresting leaders. Vesey was captured on June 22, and he and the conspirators were brought to trial. Despite torture and the threat of execution, the men refused to give up their followers. On July 2nd, Denmark Vesey and five other men were hanged. Gullah Jack was executed several days later, with the total number of executions reaching 35 by August 9th.

In the aftermath of the Vesey rebellion, the African Church was burned down and authorities passed a series of laws further restricting the rights of Charleston slaves. Vesey became a martyr for African-Americans and a symbol for the abolitionist movement, while the increasingly militant politics of white America dragged the country toward Civil War.
"At almost every meeting, it was said, Vesey or one of his comrades 'read to us from the Bible, how the children of Israel were delivered out of Egypt from bondage.' That theme was struck insistently: the deliverance from Egypt, the movement of God among his captive people. (No wonder, then, that in some black tradition it was said that Vesey or his fellows were the inspiration for the ageless black song of faith and struggle, 'Go Down, Moses'...)" --Vincent Harding, There is a River



In 1815, whites in Charleston discovered that black Methodists had been secretly pooling money to buy freedom for enslaved congregants. Whites moved to restrict black autonomy. They planned to construct a hearse house on top of a black burial ground, a move Charleston blacks saw as a final insult. Over 4,000 black members left white churches in protest, and formed an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. Denmark Vesey followed them, leaving the segregated Second Presbyterian Church, where slaves were taught the words of St. Paul: "Servants, obey your masters." In the AME Church, Vesey found the freedom to preach his beliefs.

At weekly AME "class meetings" held in his home, Vesey taught a radical new liberation theology. He spoke only from the Old Testament, particularly Exodus, casting his followers as the new Israelites, whom God would lead to freedom. In 1818, white authorities disrupted an AME service attended by free black ministers from Philadelphia and arrested 140 people. Vesey considered leaving Charleston for Africa, but he decided to stay and "see what he could do for his fellow creatures." With a new urgency, he preached that freedom for slaves would be realized, and he began plotting a rebellion.

Following the 1818 raid on the African Church, Vesey enlisted Gullah Jack, a Church member and an Angolan priest and healer, to recruit native Africans to join his rebellion. As a conjurer who could control the supernatural world, Jack was respected among the slaves working on Charleston's plantations. At secret nighttime meetings, Jack led men in prayer, singing and ritual meals that transformed them from powerless slaves to rebels with a common purpose. He prescribed a special diet and gave them crab claws as amulets to protect them in battle. Through Jack, Vesey was able to reach many more recruits.

Like Denmark Vesey, George Wilson was a class leader in the AME Church, but he followed the Christian doctrine of loving one's neighbor, and was devoted to his master. When fellow slave Rolla Bennett told him of the rebellion, Wilson pleaded with him "to let it alone." Five sleepless nights later, on June 14, Wilson told his master of the plot, confirming the confession of another man and leading to the arrest and execution of Rolla Bennett and his conspirators. Although he was granted his freedom as a reward, Wilson eventually lost his sanity and committed suicide.

After the executions of Denmark Vesey and 34 others, Charleston authorities exiled the African Church leaders and razed the building. Although devastated by the destruction of their church, black Charlestonians continued to honor Vesey's revolutionary Old Testament theology in secret. For abolitionists such as David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, Vesey became a symbol of resistance and an inspiration in their writings. White Charleston responded by increasing efforts to convert slaves to New Testament Christianity, and by passing legislation to further restrict the rights of slaves. This increasingly militant path eventually led to the Civil War.

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