Denmark Vesey is having his moment.
A three-day public commemoration of the 200th anniversary of his planned liberation of enslaved Charleston-based Africans has been announced for this summer.
Titled “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary,” the event represents an unprecedented partnership between Emanuel AME Church, International African American Museum and Charleston Gaillard Center.
The initiative, which gathers leading artists, scholars, educators, entertainers and community members for discussions, live performances and installations. The program will take place at the Gaillard, which brought together the three entities, from July 14-16.
“The Charleston Gaillard Center is uniquely positioned to convene, elevate and reflect the voices an issues that matter most to our community through the arts, and honoring Denmark Vesey—a significant historical figure in Charleston whose story is often misunderstood and underrecognized,” said Lissa Frenkel, recently appointed CEO of the Charleston Gaillard Center.
Redressing a narrative
By recognizing and reflecting on the planned revolution, the presenting partners of “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary” aim to help the community understand the brutal truths and ongoing repercussions of slavery, all in the spirit of meaningful exchange.
“Authentic reckoning with the history of slavery in this country and its aftermath and institutionalized echoes is one of our nation’s greatest challenges—and the story of Denmark Vesey is a critical exemplar history must reckon with intentionally,” said Tonya Matthews, CEO of International African American Museum, in a statement.
“No other community can take this on the way Charleston can.”
The site is just a half-mile from where enslaved Africans first entered the United States, at Gadsden’s Wharf, a major port of trans-Atlantic slave trade to North America with an estimated 40 percent of all enslaved Africans entering the country from there.
Vesey, a former enslaved man and liberator in Charleston who had purchased his freedom, in 1822 organized a plan to free hundreds of those men, women and children with the ultimate goal of them all sailing to Haiti where they could live as free citizens.
When his plans were leaked and thwarted, 131 Africans were arrested, with 92 put on trial and another 11 sent into permanent exile. Vesey was executed on July 2, 1822, along with 35 Black men who were either hung or shot as a result of the plot.
The partners, which are all located near the eastern part of Calhoun Street, determined that the anniversary is an opportunity to combine resources.
“We are talking about an event, a moment, a main character in the story of Charleston, but because of the time and the tone of the event, this is a full-fledged American story as well,” Matthews said.
The initiative seeks to commemorate the historical significance of the event, while also redressing narratives surrounding Vesey, dispelling long-held mischaracterizations of him to instead consider his role as a freedom fighter.
Talks, concerts, comedy
To get to the heart of the history, the program is taking manifold inroads. Some, like panel discussions, are organic to such historical milestones. Others, like installations and comedy events, could be said to represent a nontraditional means to understanding.
Together, the events illustrate the divergent ways in which the program intends to engage with the broader community, something that Matthews said would be an ongoing focus for the museum both ahead of its opening and thereafter.
“I’m hoping to be able to maintain what I call multiple doorways,” she said, explaining that the variety of offerings afford people different ways to engage with the topic.
On July 14, the initiative launches with a talk among scholars, entertainers, artists and community leaders. “Truth be Told: Vesey” is a panel discussion headlined by stand-up comedian, television presenter and commentator W. Kamau Bell.
It also includes radio host and TV personality Charlamagne tha God; poet and librettist BAMUTHI (Marc Bamuthi Joseph), Kennedy Center vice president and artistic director of social impact; and community members including Matthews; Lee J. Bennett Jr., historian, Emanuel AME Church; and Tamara Butler, executive director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture.
At 8 p.m. July 15, a ticketed concert is headlined by Grammy Award-winning musical artist Anthony Hamilton, who is set to resonate through the Martha and John M. Rivers Performance Hall.
At 5 p.m. July 16, a free outdoor concert, “Orchestrating Freedom,” includes the Charleston Symphony led by Kellen Gray and Lowcountry Voices led by Nathan Nelson. It will honor the lives lost and the voices silenced through race-based violence in the United States, while also paying homage to the legacies of Black leaders throughout history.
At 8 that night, the Gaillard stage will offer a comedy set from celebrated standup comedian, actor and radio host DL Hughley of “The DL Hughley Show,” a nationally syndicated radio show that airs in over 60 U.S. cities.
Matthews said the event is one of ma
ny that anticipates the opening of the International African American Museum, which is currently slated to welcome visitors in late 2022 or early 2023.
The museum is now in the process of building up critical partnerships with others in the community, such as the one formed for this programming. When Matthews realized that the 200th anniversary of Vesey’s planned uprising was approaching, she saw it as an opportunity for the three Charleston entities to come together.
Matthews hopes that the initiative is emblematic of what’s to come, a collaborative spirit in bringing community partners to help the museum think through and welcome a broader level of community.
The museum had already formed a relationship with Emanuel AME, which Matthews said has been been gathering the many gifts, materials and historical artifacts from the church tragedy.
“We’ve been helping them to think about how to catalog those things, and record those things, and keep those things. And, as part of that, we’ve been getting a deep dive into the full history at Emanuel. That, of course includes Denmark Vesey,” she said.
At Emanuel, the Rev. Eric Manning sees the partnership from a biblical perspective: as providential, given its proximity to both the Gaillard and the museum along Memorial Way, as well as the planned memorial.
“This is just the beginning of a long-lasting partnership with several of the major (community) entities that we stand with,” he said. This event is particularly meaningful for the church, as it shares with the community the story of an Emanuel member, Vesey, who took a strong stance against slavery.
“We’re coming to this time when we can reflect upon the legacy of taking a stance for such a grave injustice,” he said.
The museum is also interested in leveraging the arts to help people engage with sensitive topics and conversations. This first foray with the Gaillard was strengthened by what its president and CEO, Lissa Frenkel, has coined the corridor of inspiration, which could also fold in other community stakeholders surrounding Calhoun Street.
“It was a very collaborative curatorial process,” Frenkel said of the bicentenary, one that also included artists like Gaillard artist-in-residence Charlton Singleton.
Telling the story
In revisiting the Vesey narrative, Matthews cites a favorite African proverb, which says that “hunters will be heroes until lions become historians.”
She observes that it was not the African American but the enslaver and free community who were telling his story. There are many other aspects to Vesey that are often skipped over — how he was an active church member at Emanuel and a small business owner.
“So you get a story that’s very, very skewed to a planned violence … without understanding it was really part of this bigger story of the fight for freedom,” she said.
But 200 years on, a partnership is seizing the chance to change that narrative, and in a way that positions Charleston as a place where these conversations can happen.
“This is where the history happened. This is where the conversation is happening.”
For more information about the “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary,” visit gaillardcenter.org/denmark-vesey.