Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Uncovering the Confederacy of the Mind or, How I Became a Belle of the Ball in Denmark Vesey's Church

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Uncovering the Confederacy of the Mind or, How I Became a Belle of the Ball in Denmark Vesey's Church

Article excerpt

I was so rushed that I could barely maintain my balance. The struggle to pull pantyhose over my tired feet, newly liberated from a pair of running shoes that had pounded the streets of Charleston all day, was about to get the best of me. It was a memorable ordeal: pantyhose don't exactly make a regular appearance in my wardrobe. But that wasn't the most remarkable thing about that moment. It was where I was changing my clothes, and why. There I was, in the bathroom at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, slipping into a ball gown for a gala to celebrate the 150th anniversary of South Carolina's secession from the United States in 1860. For the next five hours, I would rub elbows with hundreds of revelers dressed in hoop skirts and militia uniforms, men and women who believed the Old South was the apex of civilization and mourned its destruction. Yet I was getting dressed in Emanuel. This was the congregation to which Denmark Vesey, executed in 1822 for plotting a slave rebellion in Charleston, had belonged. This was the congregation in which the black revolutionary had developed a theology of liberation that ended in a plot to undermine the foundation of the Old South. In 1822, Vesey had hoped to free slaves from the very group of people the costumed gala-goers were assembling to honor at the secession ball almost two centuries later. (1)

How did I get here?

It's hard to say exactly when and where my road to the secession ball began, but Charleston itself--in June 2005--is probably as good a place as any. That month, just two weeks before we were to marry, my fiance

and I had driven from Chapel Hill to Charleston to look for an apartment. We would be moving in the fall to start our careers as professional historians. I had accepted a job at The Citadel. Ethan had earned a postdoctoral fellowship at the Avery Research Center, an African American institute affiliated with the College of Charleston. We knew we wanted to live downtown, in the heart of what is known as "Historic Charleston," and we hoped to find what everybody wants when they move to the city: hardwood floors, high ceilings, exposed brick. Yet these quaint fantasies began to recede near Manning, South Carolina, as our formerly reliable Mazda started sputtering. We had to stop. After locating a mechanic, who told us the repairs would take three hours, I phoned the woman with whom we had made our first appointment to tell her we would be late to view her apartment. Car trouble, I explained.

Later that afternoon, we rang the bell of a beautiful antebellum home in Charleston. The owner, who lived in the top two floors and rented out the bottom, answered the door. Margaret, we'll call her, was not the kind of woman who knew people with cars that broke down. The meticulously restored basement apartment, updated with a sparkling kitchen and custom-made window treatments, appeared ready for a Southern Living photo shoot. As she ushered us through the rooms, we asked about the home. Did she know much about its construction? What about previous owners, or how the various floors and rooms had originally been used? Like many Charlestonians who spend their days surrounded by the relics of the past, our prospective landlady had done her research, sort-of. The house had been built around 1840 by the Toomers, a wealthy family that included two physicians. Up until the Civil War, she informed us, the apartment we were considering had been the workspace of the servants. "Of the slaves," I instinctively replied. They were "servants," Margaret countered. There's no evidence in the historical records, she continued, that the Toomers didn't pay them. It was quite a double negative, the logic of which we have spent years pondering. (As we suspected that day--and later confirmed--plenty of evidence exists that enslaved people lived and worked in the Toomer household.) In terms of an introduction to Charleston, the exchange could not have been more revealing, though we didn't fully appreciate this fact at that moment. …

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