Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Looking the Thing in the Face: Slavery, Race, and the Commemorative Landscape in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865-2010

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Looking the Thing in the Face: Slavery, Race, and the Commemorative Landscape in Charleston, South Carolina, 1865-2010

Article excerpt

[Denmark] Vesey represents the spirit of independence for which the founding fathers of America are praised.... But Denmark Vesey is a symbol of a spirit too violent to be acceptable to the white community. There are no Negro schools named for him, and it would be extremely poor taste and bad judgment for the Negroes to take any pride in his courage and philosophy. There is, indeed, little chance for Negro youth to know about him at all.

Charles S. Johnson, Growing Up in the Black Belt (1941)

HENRY DARBY ARRIVED AT MORRIS COLLEGE IN AUGUST 1971 A proud native of Charleston, South Carolina. During his first days on the Sumter, South Carolina, campus, he frequently bragged about his hometown to his fellow freshmen, many of whom hailed from rural areas. Darby's pride, it seems, attracted the attention of one of the historically black college's coaches, who called him up in front of his whole class at an early orientation session. The coach asked if he was from Charleston. Darby said yes. The coach asked again to be sure. The freshman confirmed that he was a Charlestonian. The coach then posed what Darby now describes as a "profound question": "Well, who was Denmark Vesey?" Darby was at a loss. He replied, "Denmark who?" Soon he was running out of the auditorium, with tears streaming down his face, for Darby was, in his own words, "ignorant of what this man had done in the very place I was born and raised." (1)

That a black Charlestonian like Darby, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, had never heard of Denmark Vesey--who was executed in 1822 for plotting a slave rebellion in the city--is not entirely surprising. Charleston had worked hard since the nineteenth century to avoid candid discussions of its slaveholding past. When Scandinavian writer Fredrika Bremer visited the city in 1850, for example, she repeatedly talked about slavery with locals. Yet Bremer found these discussions unsatisfying. "I scarcely ever meet with a man, or woman either, who can openly and honestly look the thing in the face," she complained. (2) Bremer underscored a critical feature of the city's vexed relationship with its history that persists to this day. Slavery in Charleston--and the city's history of race relations more generally--is rarely acknowledged.

In the late 1990s, Henry Darby began a campaign to make the city confront its complicated past. Motivated by his embarrassment at Morris College, he had learned all about Denmark Vesey's failed plan to lead a slave uprising. Darby argued that Charleston should erect a monument that both commemorated Vesey and his coconspirators' resistance to slavery and recognized the brutal crackdown that followed the incident. Darby's proposal touched off a long and divisive debate over history, memory, race, and the public landscape in Charleston, a debate that shows no signs of ending despite the fact that ground was broken for the project in 2010. Opponents of the idea have argued that Vesey was little more than a would-be murderer who deserves no place in the city's public space. In contrast, Darby and his supporters insist that Vesey was a freedom fighter whose memorialization would make that very space more historically accurate, for, as they note, the monuments and memorials that abound in downtown Charleston avoid the topic of slavery entirely. Even the Calhoun Monument, erected to honor a man who deemed southern slavery "a positive good," makes no mention of the institution John C. Calhoun fought so hard to defend. (3) It is as if the slave past of Charleston--the American city to which the peculiar institution mattered more than perhaps any other--has been erased from public memory. (4)

Henry Darby's crusade to erect a Vesey monument would seem, at first glance, a product of the post-civil rights movement South. Having defeated Jim Crow laws and practices in Charleston, as in the rest of the region, black activists in the last several decades have turned their attention to desegregating the region's historical memory, a project that has often centered on the commemorative landscape. …

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