In the past, I have taught that Denmark Vesey, who was a free black man in the South, organized a failed slave insurrection in South Carolina. Until a decade ago, most historians believed that Vesey was the mastermind of this failed coup. In a shocking piece, published by the William and Mary Quarterly, a prestigious history journal, Michael Johnson revisited the court records and noted that Vesey was never present. Further, all testimonies came from slaves — some who were coerced out of fear. Hence, his paper concluded that “…the conspiracy in Charleston in 1822 was not a plan by blacks to kill whites but rather a conspiracy by whites to kill blacks, which resulted in the largest number of executions ever carried out by a civilian court in the United States”.
According to Johnson, the Vesey insurrection was not a slave organized event, but one of hysteria created by political actors seeking office who needed a bit of gravitas to launch their agenda against others. The United States Supreme Court criticized the South Carolina Court for committing legalized murder.(Source: March 11, 2002 issue of The Nation pg. 22)
Why is this important for our students? Black activist in South Carolina have fought to build a statue of Vesey in the city of Charleston. They were met by opposition due to a false notion that Vesey was plotting murder. Vesey was a man of honor and character; he informed others of the inherent wrongs found in America. He discussed God and how America was not a Godly nation due to its actions. There are scholars who disagree with the new interpretation of Vesey and the construction of a public statue. Concord Academy graduate and now Harvard University president, Drew Gilpin Faust, noted that “I have problems with finding heroism as the purpose of history.” It appears that her perspective is one of not turning heroism into history. Though she seems to favor this new interpretation, it is hard to tell if she favors this statue, which you can read about here.
I am most excited about this because I have elected to spend time this fall having my students look at various interpretations of slave historiography. A book that I placed on our summer reading is Confessions of Nat Turner. I will blog about that work and how I intend to use it. This work should create a great deal of debate among my students. If they elected not to read William Styron’s fictional work, I have already edited key points from it as a comparison to the historiography. Also, having students compare the treatment of Vesey in older texts to that in recent ones is a great exercise in how history is not static, but often a changing discipline. As I shared with a few members in my department, our Nation of Nations text (6th edition) paints one image of Vesey on pages 307 and 363, while our new text America’s History (8th edition) paints the most updated historiography on page 401.