The Face of Denmark Vessey

In 1976, and to great controversy, the City of Charleston commissioned a portrait of Denmark Vessey to hang in the Gaillard Auditorium. As all likenesses of him had been destroyed, the artist painted him from the back, addressing the original congregation of Emanuel A.M.E.

It’s 193 years later, and forces are still conspiring to conceal the face of Denmark Vessey.

Friday was the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Like many of us, I spent time reflecting on the state of the world and our place in it as Americans and South Carolinians.

After my step son left for school, we heard about a heavy police presence around Charleston schools. Heightened security on the 9/11 anniversary made sense, but a quick Google indicated there was an alleged threat which had been picked up, posted and gone viral.

Law enforcement divisions from all over the state were alerted in the event that analogs of the fatal Walter Scott shooting in April or the tragic loss of life at Emanuel A.M.E  on June 17th might occur.  I read the original post, signed by a General Greg Black USCA Commanding, :

“THE BLACK PANTHERS HAVE BEEN GIVEN THE ORDER TO GO INTO SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES AND KILL ALL (the) WHITE KIDS AND TEACHERS …TO KILL ALL WHITE COPS AND CRACKERS…MAKE SURE YOU ARE ARMED AT ALL TIMES!…THE COMMANDERS ARE SETTING UP QRFs (QUICK REACTION FORCES) TO RESPOND TO ANY
ACTS OF VIOLENCE.”

Thankfully, nothing untoward happened, but it’s a sad indictment of the post 9/11 world in which we live today.After service on a very stout Charleston Restaurant Week Friday I drove home in the dark quiet and, in the slow, meandering way my mind works after a full day in the saddle, I began thinking about Denmark Vessey.

I learned about Denmark Vessey years ago, studying to become a tour guide during my days at College of Charleston. I learned how violent stories of rape and bloody murder arrived in Charleston with refugees of the 1731 uprising in Saint Domingue. I learned, with a black to white ratio of nearly 2-1, how paranoid Charlestonians became and stayed, installing barbed wire like chevaux de frise spikes around their walled gardens. I learned how Vessey, a former slave who’d won his freedom via lottery, was captured and an attempted insurrection put down on the night of June 17, 1822. That the trial of Denmark Vessey and the other convicted ringleaders was by a secret tribunal, not a jury of peers. Vessey and 35 others were hanged, 31 deported to Cuba, and the Negro Seaman’s Act was passed, further restricting the rights of free blacks. The original Emanuel A.M.E. church, of which Vessey was a founder, was burned to the ground by an angry white mob. I learned how hated the name “Denmark Vessey” became, how all likenesses of him were destroyed, and how the event was used to continue to repress and enslave generations that followed.

To this day, debate swings widely: was he a terrorist? Was he a hero? You will have to decide for yourself. I don’t think the date of June 17th was overlooked by Dylann Roof when he went into Mother Emanuel on the night of June 17th of this year, murdering 9 parishioners and wounding one while shouting “I have to do it. You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

So doesn’t it seem just a bit odd that 193 years on, the image of the violent black man murdering white children and raping white women continues to be used, in this case deflecting the focus away from Dylann Roof and his neighboring cellmate Michael Slager, accused of the murder of Walter Scott. It’s 2015, and way past time we were comfortable enough in our own skins to have an honest discussion on race.

Hurry up please, it’s time.

About Chef Forrest Parker

A devoted evangelist of all things South Carolina, Chef Forrest Parker is a long time licensed tour guide for the City of Charleston and was named a 2016 SC Chef Ambassador by Governor Nikki Haley. More to come...
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