The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The remarkable history of Charleston’s racial divide, as told by the city’s silent statues

A Denmark Vesey monument is seen in Hampton Park in Charleston, S.C., on June 23. Vesey was the founder of Emanuel AME Church who attempted to lead a slave rebellion in Charleston. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

After a century and a half, Charleston suddenly started to tell different stories about its past.

For decades, statues of South Carolina's Confederate heroes — defenders of slavery and secession — stood over the city.  These weren't monuments erected after the Civil War but arose mostly late in that century and early 20th, when whites were striving to overturn Reconstruction, establish Jim Crow and cement a narrative of the war as a noble but lost cause. But nothing recognized the history of the city's African Americans.

But over the past few years, the city’s history, as seen through its monuments and historical markers, has begun to broaden, taking in themes of civil rights and African Americans. The largest addition to the landscape, seen above, is the Spirit of Freedom Monument, topped with a life-sized statue of Denmark Vesey. He was a Charleston free black and founder of Emanuel AME Church who led a slave rebellion. Unveiled in 2014, Vesey stands in a park near The Citadel, the military college with roots reaching back to whites’ fears that were stoked by Vesey’s unsuccessful revolt.

Another statue new last year portrays federal Judge J. Waties Waring, the son of a Confederate soldier who was once widely hated in Charleston for his civil rights rulings in the 1940s and 1950s. Last month a historical marker went up near the former home of abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimke. It joined nine others unveiled since 2010. They mark events like the five-month cigar factory strike, by mostly black women, where “We Shall Overcome” became a protest anthem. Or remember people like Robert Smalls, who made a daring boat escape from slavery and became a Union Navy pilot and later congressman.

“They’ve really come a long way in beginning to incorporate African American history into the public history narrative,” said Katherine Mellen Charron, a North Carolina State professor. “They have a long way to go. But you have to acknowledge the progress that’s been made."

As you can see in the chart above, the memorials honoring African Americans seem to outnumber the Confederate memorials, although the Confederate memorials still hold the most prominent locations in the city center and along The Battery.

The new Black history markers appeared in a spurt that coincided with the 150-year anniversaries of the Civil War and with the 50-year civil rights movement anniversaries. But locals say the new monuments are the result of a long evolution in local attitudes that began as early as three decades ago.

Before then, it was rare for plantation visitors to hear or see where or how slaves lived and where they were buried, said Donald West, a history instructor at Charleston’s Trident Technical College. Now, it’s common.

Most Charleston tourists still seem to start off wanting to see the city’s grand mansions. But David Gwynne-Vaughan, who owns a Charleston tour business, said that if they come back or stay longer, history buffs especially are more likely these days to ask about topics like slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction and civil rights. “People are more interested in why we’re here and what got us here,” he said.

Tour guides, for their part, probably are less likely to preach on the antebellum South’s state’s rights views, he said, and more likely to paint the Civil War as being ultimately about slavery.

Perhaps nothing reflects Charleston’s evolution as well as the historical figure of Vesey, who was reviled as a terrorist by some and by others was lauded as a freedom fighter. He was hanged shortly after the unsuccessful 1822 rebellion at a Charleston site believed to be near his new statue.

In the 1960s, hundreds of black women on strike against Charleston’s Medical College Hospital chanted, “Remember Denmark Vesey,” according to Blain Roberts, a historian who has written about Charleston’s commemorative landscape. In the 1970s, there was an outcry when the city hung a Vesey portrait in its municipal auditorium, and the painting was stolen for a time.

“Denmark Vesey is the first Charleston monument that squarely talks about slavery,” said historian Ethan Kytle, Roberts’s co-author and spouse. “In 2014 — 149 years after the end of the Civil War — Charleston can talk openly about slavery. It’s a sign of progress.”

The push for the new Vesey statue took 18 years. It was headed by Henry Darby, who grew up in Charleston in the 1950s and 1960s. But he didn’t learn about Vesey until he went to college. “There was such a backlash,” he said of the monument campaign, “that we didn’t think we could get it done.”

Darby, now a Charleston County Council member, said his group first wanted Vesey to go in Marion Square, the city’s symbolic center. That’s where since 1887 has stood a memorial to John C. Calhoun, the U.S. senator and secessionist who proclaimed that slavery was good.

Darby’s group rejected a deal that would have put Vesey in Marion Square only as part of a work portraying a varied group of people. So the statue ended up in a park about a mile north. “The landscape is changing, sir, but not fast enough,” Darby said.

He hopes the statue will inspire others in the South, perhaps a memorial to Nat Turner, who led an 1831 black rebellion in Southampton County, Va.

Nic Butler, a Charleston Public Library historian, said monuments like Vesey's reflect a newer trend for public history to focus on exceptional people and colorful stories. “Whether you think he’s a hero or a criminal, he’s part of our history.”

“We need to talk about our shared history,” Butler said “What kinds of things do we have in common that can bring us together today. Not just historical markers for white middle class tourists but for anyone interested in the human condition.”

Charron, who studies the history of the South, women and African Americans, believes there is a need to go even further and highlight incidents of racial violence. Her Charleston walking tour would include a stop at Marion Square and talk about the 1919 race riot, when white sailors fanned out across the city to attack African Americans.

“We need to do better talking about racial violence in the past,” she said, “to talk about racial violence in the present.”

Emily Chow created the graphics for this story.