A “terrible legacy”


Graves of Union soldiers who died at the Race Course prison camp in Charleston (1865). (Library of Congress)

While #YallQaida was in southeast Oregon looking for a liberty tree to water with the blood of BLM agents, we were weekending in Charleston, SC where bloody history is still fresh. It had been over a decade since I’d worked there. It took time to get reoriented.

The peninsula is not that big, though, so it wasn’t long before we passed Mother Emanuel AME Church, the site of last summer’s mass shooting. A 21-year-old white shooter confessed to the killings. He had hoped to ignite a race war. Instead he found forgiveness from the families of his black victims. People are still leaving flowers outside. A sign still mentions the Wednesday night Bible study. It hurt just standing there reading it.

Outside Mother Emanuel AME church, Charleston, SC

The Washington Post reported after the massacre:

That history is a long and storied one. The congregation was founded in the era of slavery by Morris Brown, a founding pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1816, frustrated with the racism he encountered in Charleston’s segregated churches, Brown decided to form a church of his own. About 4,000 parishioners followed him — more than 75 percent of the city’s black community, according to a history published by the College of Charleston.

From the beginning, the congregation was a focal point of community organizing and anti-slavery activism — provoking fears and intense distrust among the city’s white population. According to a PBS documentary, white Charlestonians constantly monitored the church, sometimes disrupting services and arresting worshipers.

They had some reason for alarm: Denmark Vesey, the organizer of one of the nation’s most notable failed slave uprisings, was a leader in the church. He fiercely and insistently preached that African Americans were the new Israelites, that their enslavement would be punished with death, and in 1822 he and other leaders began plotting a rebellion.

It failed. Vesey and many others were hanged.

Sunday morning we happened to drive by The Citadel, removed from the business district and off the usual tourist track. I had never been in that quadrant of the city before, but remembered a recent blog post that explained how Memorial Day had its origins in Charleston in a spot just east of the military college. Of course, we went looking for it:

… During the final year of the war, the Confederates had converted the city’s Washington Race Course and Jockey Club into an outdoor prison. Union captives were kept in horrible conditions in the interior of the track; at least 257 died of disease and were hastily buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand.

After the Confederate evacuation of Charleston black workmen went to the site, reburied the Union dead properly, and built a high fence around the cemetery. They whitewashed the fence and built an archway over an entrance on which they inscribed the words, “Martyrs of the Race Course.”

The symbolic power of this Low Country planter aristocracy’s bastion was not lost on the freedpeople, who then, in cooperation with white missionaries and teachers, staged a parade of 10,000 on the track. A New York Tribune correspondent witnessed the event, describing “a procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before.”

The procession was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren carrying armloads of roses and singing the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body.” Several hundred black women followed with baskets of flowers, wreaths and crosses. Then came black men marching in cadence, followed by contingents of Union infantrymen. Within the cemetery enclosure a black children’s choir sang “We’ll Rally Around the Flag,” the “Star-Spangled Banner” and spirituals before a series of black ministers read from the Bible.

After the dedication the crowd dispersed into the infield and did what many of us do on Memorial Day: enjoyed picnics, listened to speeches and watched soldiers drill. Among the full brigade of Union infantrymen participating were the famous 54th Massachusetts and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, who performed a special double-columned march around the gravesite.

Hampton Park, Charleston, SC

The fallen were later moved, most to a national cemetery in Beaufort, S.C. The race track became a city park named after Confederate General (and later governor) Wade Hampton III. An historic marker commemorating this first Memorial Day was installed in just 2010. Wherever it was, we missed seeing it. Even reading a photo carefully (go do it now), one can easily miss that the majority of participants were former slaves. You have to know your history and read between the lines. At a time when news agencies cannot bring themselves to mention that the armed, Bundy insurrectionists in Oregon are white (or nearly all) or refer to them as anything more dangerous than “activists” or “occupiers,” on this coast even a five year-old historical marker in a gentrifying, heavily black city tiptoes around the fact that the honorable actions it commemorates were performed by black, former slaves.

Then again, newer, more prominent, and a surprise was the statue below, installed at Hampton Park just two years ago. Unlike the other marker, the statue’s base provides a clear background to who Denmark Vesey was and why he has found a place in Hampton Park:

The Post and Courier reported:

Committee members and speakers all said the monument was an important step taken to fill in the historical gaps – to widen recognition of slavery’s terrible legacy and the full cost of freedom. Vesey’s actions of 1822 can inspire anyone who cares about liberty, Franks said. “The spirit of freedom is so pervasive.”

Mayor Joe Riley, admiring the site, said it was neither hidden nor too prominent, affording people a contemplative spot to pay their respects to an important historical figure.

“The undeniable fact is this: Denmark Vesey was free,” Riley told the assembly. “He was a free black man, No one owned him. … He risked his life and gave his life to make enslaved people free.”

The Rev. Joe Darby, speaking as a leader of the AME Church, was perhaps the most outspoken about the controversies surrounding Vesey and the effort to memorialize him.

“Some people see Denmark Vesey as a dangerous terrorist,” Darby said. “Most see him as a freedom fighter. My hope is that this monument will add to the full story of our southern heritage.”

The would-be freedom fighters’ insurrection in Oregon over poaching on public lands doesn’t quite measure up in the heritage department.

It took over half a century to bring down the Confederate battle flag South Carolina raised over its capitol in 1961 in defiance of the Civil Rights movement. That came down just last summer in the wake of the shootings at Mother Emanuel AME.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

Categories : History, National, News

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