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Denmark Vesey And The History Of Charleston's Emanuel AME Church


As we've been hearing, Emanuel AME Church in Charleston was well-known long before it became the site of a massacre by a suspect who's linked to white supremacy. The church has a deep history in the civil rights movement. And yesterday, President Obama noted its roots in an earlier bid for freedom.


PRES BARACK OBAMA: This is a church that was burned to the ground because its worshipers worked to end slavery.

MONTAGNE: The president was speaking about an event in 1822. One of the church's founders, a freed slave named Denmark Vesey, was convicted for planning a slave revolt, a revolt that was never carried out. He was executed. The tree where it's believed he was hanged still stands in Charleston. Historian Douglas Egerton wrote a book about Denmark Vesey.

DOUGLAS EGERTON: He had one of those amazing stories that if it were a movie or a novel, one would not believe it. When he was about 13, he was purchased to be sold into the French colony of Saint-Domingue, which is modern day Haiti. He liked the captain who had bought him, a man named Joseph Vesey, who had used him briefly as a cabin boy. And Vesey settled in Charleston as an importer of nautical goods.

MONTAGNE: All right, so he was skilled. And as I understand it, he bought his freedom.

EGERTON: He played the lottery, and he won about $1,800. And so he bought his freedom, and the deed was signed on New Year's Eve 1799. So he went to sleep that night and woke up in the new century as a free man, but his wife and his children remained slaves.

MONTAGNE: So as the rare free black man among mostly black people who are slaves, what was his role exactly in concocting a plan for a slave revolt?

EGERTON: The plan was initially to rise up on July 14, 1822, that was Bastille Day. And the idea was that as church bells tolled midnight, urban slaves would slay their masters as they slept and then fight their way to the docks and sail the next morning to Haiti.

MONTAGNE: And Haiti, it must be noted, had been freed through a slave revolt.

EGERTON: Yes, so this made Vesey's plot unusual in North America in that it was not kind of a typical rebellion. It was a mass exodus. It was a mass escape. Vesey understands that noncombatants - which is to say women, children, aged - are going to die when his men rise up. But of course, their goal is not to kill whites. Their goal is to get away.

MONTAGNE: Tell us about the trial itself.

EGERTON: It was essentially a kangaroo court. There was no chance that Vesey was going to survive this alive. And they read a sentence to him they had obviously written in advance. It was very long and prepared. And his only response was to look at them and say the work of insurrection will go on. They could hang him, but they couldn't kill the idea.

MONTAGNE: How, though, did his case affect what is now Emanuel Church?

EGERTON: After the conspiracy collapsed, the church was raised, probably burned to the ground. And so the building that's there now is the third-generation AME Church in Charleston. And of course, Vesey has never been forgotten by the black community in South Carolina, who worked long and hard to get the statue erected that went up in 2014. And of course, white Carolinians have always regarded the church as kind of a hotbed of activism, which is why this tragedy was undoubtedly no accident. This has been a target for a very long time.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

EGERTON: Good to talk to you, a sad day.

MONTAGNE: Douglas Egerton is the author of "He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives Of Denmark Vesey." He's also an historian at Lemoyne College in Syracuse, N.Y. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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