Was Denmark Vesey an Abolitionist or Terrorist?

Douglas Egerton, author of He Shall Go Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey and the recent The Wars of Reconstruction, asks this question in Tuesday’s New York Times.   He writes in light of the controversy surrounding the recent unveiling of a Vesey statute in Charleston, South Carolina.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Vesey, he was a former slave who planned a slave rebellion in South Carolina in 1822.  South Carolina officials foiled Vesey’s plans and he was convicted and executed.  

Here is a taste of Egerton’s op-ed:

The complexity of Vesey’s story is hard to grasp, and wrestling with slavery and violence is hardly unique to South Carolina; white Southerners may rightly wonder when Manhattan will erect a statue to the slave Caesar Varick, who was burned alive in 1741 for plotting a revolt similar to Vesey’s.

More than a decade ago, while I was giving a talk on Vesey in Charleston, a member of the audience challenged my view that what Vesey wished to accomplish — the freedom for his friends and family — could be a good thing, on the grounds that he went about it the wrong way. “Why not work within the system for liberation,” the man asked, or even “stage a protest march?”

Although well intentioned, such questions reveal how far American society still has to travel before we reach a sophisticated understanding of the past. There was no “system” for Vesey to work within; his state had flatly banned private manumissions, or the freeing of slaves, in 1820. The only path to freedom was to sharpen a sword. Americans today can admire the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 nonviolent March on Washington, but his world was not Vesey’s, and we must understand that.

It is ironic that such historical myopia should be found in Charleston, which today bills itself as one of the nation’s most historic cities. Each afternoon horse-drawn carriages transport tourists about its narrow streets. But as the fight over the Vesey statue suggests, tour guides tell at best an incomplete story.

They often ignore, for example, the fact that of the roughly 400,000 Africans sold into what is now the United States, approximately 40 percent landed on Sullivan’s Island, a hellish Ellis Island of sorts just outside of Charleston Harbor. Today nothing commemorates that ugly fact but a simple bench, established by the author Toni Morrison using private funds.