The one thing that we do know with absolute certainty is that Denmark Vesey was executed. He was hung from a tree in the middle of Ashley Avenue, not far from where his monument now stands today. He was executed on dubious evidence for possibly thinking about violence, possibly planning on violence, but not actually committing any act of violence. But, the people who sentenced him to death deemed African American violence – or even the suspicion of violence – as inherently criminal and intrinsically indefensible. We may never know for sure what Vesey did or did not have planned in 1822. We do know, however, that his guilt was presumed and his death was assured based on the color of his skin.
And, as such, the monument to Denmark Vesey resonates with particularly profound meaning today. It is not a stretch to see how this perspective on Vesey’s memory speaks as much to our modern struggles with race and violence as it does to our understanding of the past. In our modern era of “stand your ground” and “stop and frisk,” the tragedy of systemic injustice for people of color continues to haunt us today, albeit in ways far more subtle and oblique than two hundred years ago. The system that executed Vesey in 1822 rationalized its decision through fears of racialized violence, a fact that feels tragically familiar in the age of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Today, as we continue to debate Vesey’s historic legacy, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to answer unanswerable questions that will either vindicate his memory or demonize his character. Yet, in trying to make Vesey into either a saint or a devil, we tend to lose sight of the greater sorrows that lay behind his accusation and execution. As Vesey’s monument stands now under the majestic oaks of Hampton Park, it serves as a poignant memorial to our nation’s fraught history of race and justice.
More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. “Why not work within the system for liberation,” the man asked, or even “stage a protest march?”
Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that….
Critics of the Vesey statue may not care for his methods (even though their city bristles with monuments and statues of men who picked up a gun to fight for slavery in 1861). But they need to acknowledge that his views were shaped by the whip. Upon being told that he was going to hang, Vesey allegedly whispered that “the work of insurrection would go on.” When it comes to facing up to unhappy truths about our history, he was more right than he knew.
This leaves me wondering how far are we from seeing a monument to Nat Turner in Southampton Country, Virginia.