[Blackstudies-l] from The Nation: the Charleston Massacre and the Cunning of White Supremacy

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Fri Jun 19 11:53:18 EDT 2015

[image: The Nation]
Published on *The Nation* (http://www.thenation.com)

The Charleston Massacre and the Cunning of White Supremacy
Greg Grandin | June 18, 2015

*A prayer circle gathers early Thursday, June 18, 2015, down the street
from Emanuel AME Church following Wednesday night's shooting. (AP
Photo/David Goldman)*

According to Matt Ford
[1] at *The Atlantic*, the Charleston, South Carolina, church where a white
gunman murdered nine people was

The oldest black church south of Baltimore, and one of the most storied
black congregations in the United States, Emanuel African Methodist
Episcopal Church’s history is deeply intertwined with the history of
African American life in Charleston. Among the congregation’s founders was
Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was executed in 1822 for attempting to
organize a massive slave revolt in antebellum South Carolina. White South
Carolinians burned the church to the ground in response to the thwarted
uprising; along with other black churches, it was shuttered by the city in
1834. The church reorganized in 1865, and soon acquired a new building
designed by Robert Vesey, Denmark’s son; the current building was
constructed in 1891. It has continued to play a leading role in the
struggle for civil rights.

Denmark Vesey
[2] is one of the most prominent names in America’s long history of racial
terror. And the killer didn’t choose just Vesey’s church but his
anniversary. Based on fragmentary evidence
[3], white Charlestonians in 1822 came to believe that Vesey’s revolt
“would begin at the stroke of midnight as Sunday, June 16, turned to
Monday, June 17.” And they identified Vesey’s church as the center of the

White militia began to arrest both freemen and slaves, 10 that weekend, and
many more in the days that followed. Vesey, a freeman, was captured on June
22. It’s not just the executors of the “war on terror” who have used
euphemisms to describe torture. A Charleston official referred
[4] to the interrogations the captured men were subject to like this: “No
means which experience or ingenuity could devise were left unessayed to
eviscerate the plot.”

Then, after a quick trial and guilty verdict, Vesey and five others were
hung on July 2. More arrests were made, and more executions followed, 35 in
total, often in front of immense crowds.

Here’s the historian Ira Berlin, summing up
<https://www.nytimes.com/books/99/11/14/reviews/991114.14berlint.html> [5]
what is known of Vesey’s life:

It is a story well worth the telling. One of millions of young Africans
sold into the Atlantic slave marts in the 18th century, the young
Telemaque—later transmuted into Denmark—was plucked from a cargo of some
400 slaves by Captain Vesey, who was taken by his ”beauty, alertness and
intelligence.” Vesey assigned the lad to his cabin, taught him to read and
write, and allowed him to learn a trade—and much else.… The Veseys, both
the captain and his slave, eventually alighted in the city of Charleston,
mainland North America’s largest slave port. There, Captain Vesey retired
to a comfortable respectability, supported in part by the earnings of his
slave, who was permitted to hire himself out on his own.… While Denmark
Vesey crossed the line from slavery to freedom, he did not…affiliate with
Charleston’s growing community of free people of color. These artisans and
tradesmen, with light skins that betrayed their mixed racial origins,
aspired to the privileges of the master class, whose deportment, speech and
values—including slave ownership—they emulated. Rather than being satisfied
with a pale imitation of freedom, Vesey became increasingly discontented.
In the back alley groggeries and weekly Bible classes, he denounced slavery
as criminal usurpation, citing the Scriptures, the Declaration of
Independence and even Congressional debates. He sneered at those who
accepted bondage and deferred to whites, declaring that they deserved to be
slaves. The angry old man awed even those he did not intimidate. Vesey
believed slavery would only end with fire, and understood that a successful
insurrection rested upon uniting the fragmented black population. While he
may have dismissed the assimilationist-minded free people of color, he
believed the other elements of the black community could be brought
together. To those taken with Christianity, he quoted the Bible. To those
mindful of power, he spoke of armies of Haitian soldiers in waiting. To
those fearful of the spirit world, he enlisted one Jack
Pritchard—universally known as Gullah Jack—a wizened, bewhiskered conjurer
whose knowledge of African religious practices made him a welcome figure on
the plantations that surrounded Charleston. And while he drew followers
from the slave quarter and the artisans’ shops, he also enlisted from the
master’s household, recruiting even the personal servant of South
Carolina’s governor. Vesey coaxed and cajoled, implored and exhorted,
flattered and bullied until his scheme was in place.

Berlin writes that “while slaveholders sent Denmark Vesey to the gallows
and committed him to an unmarked grave, they failed to consign him to
historical oblivion.… Former slaves preserved his memory, even as former
slaveholders denied it. Today it seems clear that Denmark Vesey will not
remain buried much longer.”

Maybe others remembered him as well, though it might just be a coincidence
that “the clean-shaven white man about 21 years old with sandy blond hair
and wearing a gray sweatshirt, bluejeans and Timberland boots
<http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting.html> [6]”
chose the anniversary of Vesey’s preempted revolt to massacre nine members
of the congregation Vesey founded.

Or maybe history, along with white supremacy, is just cunning that way.
*Source URL:*

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/books/99/11/14/reviews/991114.14berlint.html
[6] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting.html
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