Before Charleston’s church shooting, a long history of attacks

Douglas R. Egerton writes: In 1868, three men assassinated the Rev. Benjamin Randolph in broad daylight as he was boarding a train in Abbeville County, South Carolina. Randolph, a black man, had recently won a seat in the State Senate and was then campaigning for the Republican slate. Having served as an Army chaplain with the 26th Regiment United States Colored Troops, Randolph asked the Freedmen’s Bureau to send him “where he can be most useful to his race.” He settled in South Carolina in time to take part in the 1865 rededication of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston. It was that church’s long history of spiritual autonomy and political activism that caught the attention of the white vigilantes who gunned him down and rode away. Randolph’s fate was repeated yesterday with the murder of nine people, including the pastor of the church, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who, like Randolph, also served as a state senator.

Reports of yesterday’s tragedy have invariably noted that an earlier incarnation of the Emanuel Church was home to Denmark Vesey, a lay minister who was one of the church’s founders, but the connections between Vesey, the congregation’s long history of activism and the events of June 17 run far deeper than that.

South Carolina was unique in early America for its black majority. No other Southern colony or state had a white minority until 1855, when Mississippi also earned that particular status. In 1822, Charleston housed 24,780 people, only 10,653 of whom were white. Free people of color were a tiny percentage, at 623, and most of them were the mixed-race offspring of white fathers and black mothers. One of the few free blacks in the city was a former slave turned carpenter, Denmark Vesey.

Vesey’s early life was so unusual that if it were the plot of a novel or film, most would regard the saga as an absurd fiction. (The fact that his story has not attracted modern filmmakers is in itself curious, and perhaps a commentary on Hollywood’s disinclination to wrestle seriously with the American past.) Born around 1767 on what was then the Danish island of St. Thomas, he was purchased in 1781 by Capt. Joseph Vesey, who shipped slaves around the Caribbean. Vesey briefly kept the child as a cabin boy, but upon reaching the French sugar colony of St. Domingue — modern Haiti — he sold the child, whom he had rechristened Telemaque, to French planters. Even by the standards of slave societies, St. Domingue was hell on earth. Telemaque pretended to have epileptic fits, rendering him unfit for the fields. When the captain returned with another cargo of humans, he had to take the child back, at which time the fits stopped. Captain Vesey, who settled in Charleston after the British evacuation in 1783, kept Telemaque — whose name had evolved into Denmark — as a domestic servant and assistant.

Denmark’s life took yet another turn in the fall of 1799, when he won $1,500 in the city lottery. The captain might simply have confiscated the earnings of his human property, but instead he agreed to sell Denmark his freedom for $600. The bargain was completed on New Year’s Eve, and Denmark Vesey woke up in the new century as a free man. But his wife, and therefore his two sons, Robert and Sandy, remained enslaved by a man named James Evans. At length, with his wife in bondage, Vesey married another woman, named Susan, and Vesey was able to buy her freedom. Their children grew up free in their rented house on Bull Street.

A practicing Presbyterian, Vesey was outraged by the pro-slavery brand of Christianity preached from the city’s pulpits. White ministers were advised to lecture their black congregants on “their duties and obligations” and avoid troublesome stories, like the exodus out of Egypt, or Christ’s sermons on human brotherhood. When 4,376 black Methodists quit their white-controlled church in protest over the elders’ decision to construct a hearse house — a garage — over a black cemetery, Vesey was an early convert. As a carpenter, he may even have assisted in constructing the first Emanuel Church, which stood not far from the present building.

The African Church, as black Charlestonians called it, promptly attracted the animosity of the authorities. As a lay minister, Vesey, in his off hours, taught congregants to read and write — a violation of the state’s ban on black literacy. State and city ordinances allowed for blacks to worship only in daylight hours and only with a majority of white congregants. City authorities raided the church in 1818, arresting and whipping 140 “free Negroes and Slaves,” one of them presumably Vesey. In 1819 they again shuttered the church, and in 1820 the City Council warned the Rev. Morris Brown not to allow his church to become “a school for slaves.”

Had the city not declared war on Emanuel, Vesey might not have participated in the plot that got him killed in 1822. Enslaved Carolinians were never content with their lot, of course, but every slave in the state knew the odds of a successful rebellion. To protect the region’s white minority, the city militia was ever active, and Secretary of War John C. Calhoun always stood ready to ship soldiers to his native state. But the assaults on the church, which the Old Testament taught was a capital offense, reminded blacks that authorities would never allow them even the smallest spiritual freedom.

President Jean-Pierre Boyer of Haiti had recently placed advertisements in American newspapers, urging free blacks to bring their tools and skills and start life anew in his black republic. So, meeting in Vesey’s Bull Street home and within the walls of the Emanuel, Vesey and his lieutenants called for domestic slaves to kill their masters in their beds and fight their way to the docks, where they would seize ships and sail south. Originally, the plan was set for July 14, 1822 — Bastille Day — but the plot began to unravel, and Vesey moved the plans forward to the night of June 16. The uprising would begin when the city’s churches tolled midnight, meaning that the actual black exodus out of Charleston would take place on June 17. Either the shooter in Charleston yesterday knew the importance of this date, or the selection of June 17 was a ghastly coincidence. [Continue reading…]

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