Charleston’s complicated racial past

Denmark Vesey was born into slavery in 1767, but he was literate, ambitious, and enterprising – and destined to leave an enduring legacy.

He won a lottery and purchased his freedom, and, a natural leader, he helped found an African Methodist Episcopal Church, which quickly grew into the South’s most important hub for the Black community. Vesey was unable, though, to purchase freedom for his wife and children. So he devised a plot for a wide-ranging slave revolt, with the goal of transporting his people to freedom in Haiti. Before a single blow was struck, however, plantation owners rounded up and tortured 131 slaves; hanged Vesey and his 34 co-conspirators; and destroyed his church. They also established a Municipal Guard of 150 men, which eventually became The Citadel, to keep the remaining Black population in check.

This martyr’s story might have ended there as another historical footnote, but it unfolded in Charleston, where the past remains preserved in sun-gilded amber, for better or worse, and still strobe-lights events today. Even in our more enlightened era, a sight-seeing survey of the many antebellum markers and memorials– and the Confederate flags in the city’s gift shops — can feel a little like waterboarding by sweet tea. As the capital of American slavery, where nearly half of the enslaved people brought to this country first stepped ashore and the place where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, this nexus of the Lowcountry offers the ideal setting to mull over our bloody, complicated record on race.

*Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy* (The New Press) is the first major work to analyze competing histories of the Civil War from emancipation to recent events in the news. In this thoroughly researched, heavily annotated volume, its writers, the married duo of Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts, deftly examine the dialectically entwined narratives that divide not only Charlestonians but the rest of the country.

They share only one personal anecdote, a mundane, but telling, exchange that piqued their interest. New to town, they were looking for an apartment to rent and exploring part of a historic home that the owner described as the one-time “servants’ quarters.” The historians reflexively corrected her by saying “slaves’ quarters,” which provoked a defensive argument from the landlord. Kytle and Roberts could not resist checking into documents on the house, and sure enough, their instincts were validated. They opted to look elsewhere for a home, but they had found their next project. 

Most of Charleston’s plantation owners originally hailed from Barbados, where slavery fueled the sugar industry. By the 1850s, African Americans, toiling in the rice fields, constituted the majority of the city’s residents. A Scandinavian visitor marveled with horror, “Negroes swarm the streets.” This bonded labor made the local planters among the wealthiest men in the nation, and buyers came from 100 miles away to bid on human chattel six days a week, splitting up families and selling some “down the river.” Coining the phrase “the peculiar institution,” Sen. John C. Calhoun wrote in the 1830s that slavery not only “secured the peace and happiness” of master and slave, but that it also proved “the most safe and stable basis for free institutions in the world.” Charleston’s Southern hospitality emphatically did not extend to Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Cue the salvos on Fort Sumter thirty years later. Throughout the brutal years that followed, Charleston’s planter class, unchastened, went about its malignant business. On January 19, 1865, in what might have been the last time slaves were sold in Charleston, a master named T.A. Whitney advertised thirty “Prime Negroes,” including field hands, two “house girls,” and a one-year-old toddler.

Union forces reduced the city to rubble, but the streets sprang to life when liberators, in the form of the 21st United States Colored Troops, marched into town. One minister observed: “Shawls, aprons, hats, everything was waved. Old men wept. The young women danced and jumped and cried and laughed.” The so-called “Year of Jubilee,” with its many “festivals of freedom” for Black Americans, was at hand. It was quite a party, impudent and meaningful in its symbolism for any white observer delusional enough to believe in the beneficence of slavery and inherent subservience of Black folk. With irony they no doubt relished, the revelers thronged The Citadel and made it their staging ground for lively parades. Young boys marched under the banner “We know no masters but ourselves.” Fifteen young Black women, representing the 15 slave states, and clad all in white to represent the purity and virtue once reserved solely for their mistresses, swanned through the proceedings in a statement of dignity. They gleefully held mock slave auctions, and a hearse carrying a coffin marked “Slavery” threaded through the jeering, catcalling crowds.

Black people constructed a cemetery for Union soldiers and reverently turned out on May 1, 1965 to lay flowers on the graves, calling their gesture “Decoration Day,” which eventually became Memorial Day. They also rebuilt Denmark Vesey’s church, with the revolutionary’s son designing the sanctuary. They named it Emanuel A.M.E., fondly nicknamed “Mother Emanuel.”

Reconstruction was a giddy time for Black Charlestonians, but it did not last. The word “uppity” had entered the lexicon. Jim Crow ground their social and political progress to a miserable halt, and the public-relations whitewashing of the “Lost Cause” began. The city had (white) tourists to attract, and its burghers did not want any dark stains on their seersucker. Kytle and Roberts write:

“…the segregation policies that undermined the city’s freedom festivals, the memory work that white Charlestonians began pursuing in the early twentieth century ensured that the black past remained hidden behind the Jim Crow veil. As local whites increasingly became invested in both historical preservation and tourism, they facilitated an important change. They recast the repositories of historical memory by turning to the vernacular cityscape rather than to symbolic statuary and public spaces. This made it more difficult for blacks to write their history, or any honest accounting of the enslaved past, into the commemorative landscape. It was one thing to protest a statue that honored a proslavery politician or that praised the virtues of old-time ‘darkeys.’ It was quite another to dislodge a historical memory that was made manifest everywhere the eye turned, especially in a place that claimed to be America’s Most Historic City.”

*Denmark Vesey’s Garden” especially shines in its elucidation of media spin with a drawl – there is enough forget-hell revisionism and cultural appropriation here to get any reader’s hoop skirt in a twist. Turn-of-the-century memoirists, politicians, and journalists immediately went to work enshrining “states’ rights” as the true cause of the “War Between the States,” and they were so effective that polls show a majority of Americans believe this canard today. Another persistent myth: provident masters were kind to grateful, loyal “darkeys,” who were “rescued” from their continent’s savagery. These propagandists grew misty-eyed over purported bonds of affection between slave and master. An especially galling phenomenon of moonlight-and-magnolias was the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, a popular all-white singing ensemble descended from the planter class, that, well into the 20th century, performed the sacred music of their families’ slaves while shouting, stomping, and clapping. Their costumes? Expensive skirts with crinolines and the waistcoats of the gentry. At least they did not use blackface, as other, similar groups did.

The authors write, “One curious feature of Lost Cause rhetoric is its conflicted position on slavery. … 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 influence. A few made both points simultaneously, despite the seeming incompatibility of these positions – why, after all, would one bother to deny the South’s culpability for slavery if one believed it had been a good thing? In every case, however, the project was the same, even if the contradictions remained: reinforcing the moral sanctity of the Lost Cause.”

Despite this dominant storyline, Black residents of Charleston and the surrounding Sea Islands nurtured their heritage, discreetly at first but more boldly and insistently over the years. Their parables of resilience, and their spirituals extolling hope for a better day, became a source of power during the civil rights movement. The anthem “We Shall Overcome” is based on the Gullah slave spiritual known as both “Many Thousand Gone” and “No More Auction Block.” Finally, in the 1980s, African-American guides began diversifying Charleston’s tourism industry, and eventually many of the plantations that were open to the public restored their slave quarters and incorporated them as a central feature of the tours. The Citadel and Mother Emmanuel joined forces for certain ceremonies. Denmark Vesey – historically regarded as a terrorist by whites and a freedom fighter by Blacks – got his own statue in 2014; in a shady spot in Marion Square, he looks tall and defiant, holding a Bible and a carpenter’s bag.

Sadly, not everyone embraces this spirit of reconciliation. Fierce debates about Confederate monuments and symbols roil the country. A rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, surrounding a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee turned violent and cost one protestor her life. In 2015, a warped young white supremacist named Dylann Roof walked into Bible study at Mother Emanuel – the church Vesey founded — and shot nine worshippers to death. He prepared by touring slavery-related sites, and he told the F.B.I. that he targeted Charleston because “it’s a historic city, and at one time, it had the highest ratio of black people to white people in the whole country, when we had slavery,” which had been subject to “historical lies, exaggerations, and myths” about the poor treatment of Africans.

As Kytle and Roberts write: “The persistence of racial inequality in America … reflects, to some degree, the persistence of our divided historical memory. Was slavery really all that bad? Was it really all that important to our nation? The answers to these questions matter. As Charleston proves better than any American city, the memory of slavery has always been fraught and contested ground. If a national consensus about our original sin finally seems within our reach, grasping it will not be easy. And the fact that it took the murder of nine people to inch us closer is a national disgrace.”