© 2022 KMUW
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Freedom fighter Denmark Vesey is being honored in the same city where he was executed

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

A man who lost his life fighting for freedom is being celebrated this month in the city where he was executed. You may not have heard of Denmark Vesey, who inspired abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, but some people in Charleston, S.C., are trying to change that. Victoria Hansen reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing, inaudible).

VICTORIA HANSEN, BYLINE: A man plays reggae near a statue of Denmark Vesey in a Charleston park, which seems fitting since Vesey was born in the Caribbean and planned the most sophisticated rebellion by enslaved people in our nation's history. But Malcolm Omawale Abdullah has never heard of Vesey and, when told, is not surprised.

MALCOLM OMAWALE ABDULLAH: We was always fighters, you know, always will be.

HANSEN: And it's been a fight to get Vesey's tale told in a city where nearly half of all Africans were forced ashore during the slave trade. Lee Bennett Jr. is the historian for Mother Emanuel AME Church, a church once administered by Vesey and where nine Black parishioners were murdered by a white supremacist seven years ago. Bennett grew up in Charleston.

LEE BENNETT: I always would say that I heard whispers about Denmark Vesey.

HANSEN: Bennett remembers Vesey vilified as a Black man intent on killing white people. He did not hear about Vesey as a freedom fighter until he was an adult.

So who was Denmark Vesey? Already enslaved before being taken to Charleston, Vesey won the lottery and bought his freedom. But he could not free his wife and children, owned by someone else. He plotted a revolt for July 14, 1822. Thousands of Black people would kill slaveholders, with those freed fleeing to Haiti. But the plot was leaked and Vesey hanged. Dr. Tonya Matthews plans to tell the story as the CEO and president of Charleston's new International African American Museum, scheduled to open next year.

TONYA MATTHEWS: What a failed uprising really meant is that those who had stopped the uprising would get to tell his story.

HANSEN: Slaveholders, fearful of another planned attack, controlled Vesey's narrative, and he was left out of schoolbooks by those who argued the Civil War was over states' rights, not slavery. Lissa Frenkel is the CEO of the city's performing arts center, who learned about this month's 200th anniversary of Vesey's rebellion through Mother Emanuel and wanted to honor it with several days of performances and a talk. She invited the church and museum to take part, saying the story of a free Black man who risked everything for the liberty of others is relevant today.

LISSA FRENKEL: I think there are a lot of people who feel that they're on the frontlines in a fight for freedom on a whole range of different topics.

HANSEN: Topics like abortion, race-based education and discrimination as well as rights for LGBTQ people. Comedian D.L. Hughley, who performed for the event, says Vesey's story also raises questions about what those who are privileged owe to others who have less or are treated less.

D L HUGHLEY: And I think all of us have a responsibility at every station we are in life. It's to bear witness. You have to say what you see.

HANSEN: Historian Dr. Bernard Powers suggests Vesey's story of rebellion serves as a warning of what happens when peaceful change is not an option.

BERNARD POWERS: Because the spirit of freedom and the spirit of liberty is unquenchable, and it's going to manifest itself.

HANSEN: Reverend Clementa Pinckney, killed at Mother Emanuel, often spoke about the importance of being a leader, as he does here two years before his murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLEMENTA PINCKNEY: Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that.

HANSEN: Vesey was paraded atop his coffin before being hanged. His statue, away from the city's tourist district, has been vandalized. But Vesey's story as a freedom fighter is being told 200 years later.

For NPR News, I'm Victoria Hansen in Charleston, S.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Victoria Hansen is our Lowcountry connection covering the Charleston community, a city she knows well. She grew up in newspaper newsrooms and has worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 20 years. Her first reporting job brought her to Charleston where she covered local and national stories like the Susan Smith murder trial and the arrival of the Citadel’s first female cadet.