“Brown’s church was soon a site for organizing and anti-slavery activism. One of its earliest members was Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter who preached a message of liberation. In 1822, he and other leaders plotted an uprising, drawing thousands—slave and free—into a plan to secure arms, commandeer ships, and kill slaveholders,” Bouie writes. “Informed by hostile slaves, however, white officials discovered the plot and arrested Vesey and a host of other co-conspirators. They executed him; deported dozens of blacks (including one of his sons); restricted the manumissions that had added to Charleston’s free black population; and blaming ‘black religion,’ destroyed the AME Church.”
Robert Vesey, one of Denmark’s son, designed the replacement church, and the congregation rebuilt again after an earthquake.
I was lucky enough to stop by Emanuel A.M.E. Church a couple of years ago on a 2012 trip to Charleston, thanks to a gift from a dear friend who has family in the area. He was kind enough to give us Alphonso Brown’s terrific “A Gullah Guide to Charleston,” which is a series of guided walks through the city’s black history landmarks. The book is spritely and informative, and the routes are well-designed. And it’s particularly valuable, because a number of the sites on the walks–like a house Denmark Vesey hid in while he was on the run–don’t have official historical markers. The book makes that invisible history visible, if only you have the will to look and the feet to get yourself there.
It also makes clear just how much Charleston was shaped by its black residents, from the “Harp of David” gate designed by blacksmith Philip Simmons to the Marion Square monument to John C. Calhoun, which was repeatedly defaced by African-American Charlestonians. If you want a greater sense of the Charleston black church history to which Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal belongs, “A Gullah Guide to Charleston” will give it to you in obsessive detail, walking you through both the church buildings and the schisms and outgrowths of existing congregations that produces them.
And Brown is wise to remind us that culture is protean, and that history and nostalgia can mask a certain preference for deprivation backbreaking labor.
“Much of their culture and many of their traditions have changed over time and many of the local blacks will tell you that ‘it was for the good,'” Brown writes in a brief overview of Gullah culture at the beginning of the book. “What outsiders call ‘culture and tradition’ was considered hard and oppressive work. The black farmers would have loved to have had a tractor rather than walk behind a foul-smelling horse or mule all day long. Instead of the old well pump, they would have preferred running water or indoor plumbing facilities and not haing to fight the snakes for the outhouse.”
There will be many important policy debates that come out of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, and there should be. But this murderous terrorism demands a cultural response as well. Some of our efforts need to be to sap the power of white supremacy, isolating the people who preach it and offering those who are attracted to it alternatives means of finding themselves.
But we also ought to respond with joy and discovery. So go to Charleston. Take Brown’s book with you. And remember that while while one version of history bears official labels, there are other stories of resistance and flourishing, just waiting to be found and restored to its rightful place in our memories and sense of self.