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Vesey Monument Unveiled As First To Honor An African American In The Lowcountry
2/19/2014 2:33:13 PM

Denmark Vesey monument
By Barney Blakeney

After 18 years in the making, the monument to slave insurrectionist Denmark Vesey at Hampton Park in downtown Charleston was unveiled February 15.

“Many doubted it would happen, but that’s what perseverance is all about,” said Spirit of Freedom Committee Chairman Henry Darby. He said he and Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture Curator Curtis Franks discussed erecting a monument to Vesey in 1996 and Franks uttered four profound words - “Let’s go for it.”

Over the years many individuals became involved with the effort, but Darby credits Franks as the individual who most is responsible for bringing the effort to fruition.

The Vesey monument is the only monument to an African or African American historical figure that exists in the Greater Charleston area. Accomplishing its erection came through many obstacles and with many challenges.

“Still we never relented though we were repeatedly discouraged,” Darby said.

Those challenges and obstacles arose almost with the concept. After the effort took tangible form two years later, its co-ordinating committee started dialogue to have the monument erected at Marion Square.

Marion Square is owned by two private organizations - the Washington Light Infantry and the Sumter Guards.

The organizations must give approval to any additions or renovations at the square though the square is maintained with City of Charleston taxpayers’ dollars. Washington Light Infantry and Sumter guards officials refused to approve the monument to Vesey on the square.

Marion Square perhaps would have been the most prominent and logical location for the monument because Vesey’s revolt led to the construction of the armory at Marion Square which later became the first home of The Citadel. The armory was constructed to defend the city’s white population against subsequent slave revolts.

Finding an alternative location for the monument created the first obstacle facing the effort. But it was an obstacle easily overcome. Without approval to erect the monument at Marion Square, the committee decided on Hampton Park. Ironically, the park is adjacent to the present location of The Citadel.

More opposition to a Vesey monument continued to surface. The city’s Arts and History Commission has to approve the erection of statues, markers and monuments on public property. Approval was given, but that approval came after several white citizens spoke against the project during the citizens’ participation segment of the public meeting.

Committee member and College of Charleston History Professor, Dr. Bernard Powers, said opposition to the Vesey monument is born from ignorance of history.
The picture of the aborted 1822 slave revolt is one of random violence and killing, but the facts of the incident are clouded by the myths surrounding it.

In 1822 Charleston whites were overwhelmingly outnumbered by Blacks. According to one report, more than 250,000 free Blacks and slaves lived in the area compared to less than 20,000 whites.

One myth states that an army of an estimated 9,000 Blacks led by Vesey would take the city’s arsenal and move onto outlying plantations freeing slaves and killing every white person in the city and on plantations.

Powers said the truth more likely is that while some whites would have been killed, but the objective of the revolt was to free the slave population and flee to freedom not the massacre of the white population. The rebels’ goal was freedom, not murder.

The terror such myths created still is felt today. When the City of Charleston placed a likeness of Vesey at Gailliard Auditorium during the late 1970s, it also created a firestorm of opposition. The portrait was placed in an inconspicuous location beneath a stairwell.

“That was more than a quarter century ago,” he said, “and people are still afraid. That’s because they don’t know their history or ours although they think they know both.” A monument to Vesey will serve to educate the community to the true history and perhaps lead to some reconciliation, Powers said.

Rev. Joseph Darby who is S.C. AME Church Beaufort District Presiding Elder said some see Vesey as a dangerous terrorist much as they see Dr. Martin L. King Jr. and President Barack Obama. He sees Vesey as a freedom fighter. We all should see him as someone who stood for freedom, Rev. Darby said.

Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley also characterized Vesey as a man willing to stand for freedom noting that Vesey was a free Black person who risked and gave his life to make enslaved people free. He said it’s important that Vesey’s monument be recognized as an honor to the history and fortitude that African Americans brought to this country.

Perhaps the greatest challenge to erecting the monument was its funding. Initially estimated to cost about $450,000 the original design that included Vesey and two others was scaled down to only include the image of Vesey.

Sculptor Ed Dwight said the monument was the most challenging of the 120 he’s created around the nation, but it was a fascinating challenge. dwight said Vesey’s outward image came from inside the man.

Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom, led the aborted slave revolt. The plan developed over 10 years and was uncovered when a member of the inner circle revealed it to his master. As a result, Vesey and 34 others were hanged. Their bodies were left hanging for days as a reminder to others

All vestiges of Vesey’s existence was eliminated from the community after his hanging. His family was forced to move from the state and all likenesses of Vesey were destroyed. Very little of the historic event is taught formally.

So fearful were whites after the plan had been revealed, the South Carolina General Assembly established a military fortress on the Charleston peninsula to prevent future insurrections. That military fortress later became The Citadel.

Dwight said he drew his inspiration for the sculpture from brilliance as a man who knew the difference between being a slave and being free and what that process produces.

It was that process which led to the erection of the monument, Dwight said.

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