Up until the preparation for what white nationalists call “gentrification,” in Harlem, New York City, circa 1970s-80s, street speakers on 125th Street and Seventh Avenue (now Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard) had provided historical, political and economic information to crowds of black people well into each night. That’s where most Harlem residents and visitors first heard of Denmark Vesey.
As a teenager, that is where I first heard the cry, “Remember Denmark Vesey!” I was never taught anything about this amazing black revolutionary hero all the way through New York City’s public school system where all of my teachers, from first grade through twelfth, were white Jews. How about my being branded a radical at a black college in the early 1960s for talking about Vesey?
The black historian, John Hope Franklin published his seminal book From Slavery To Freedom in 1958, and along with Herbert Aptheker’s well researched 1943 title American Negro Slave Revolts, early 1960s student Human Rights advocates spread the word about Denmark Vesey. Then the 1964 book solely about the Denmark Vesey revolt, Insurrection in South Carolina by John Lofton, garnered some popularity among student movement participants.
Other sources for study include another book by John Lofton titled Denmark Vesey’s Revolt, then there’s the 1970 book Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822, edited by Robert S. Starobin. However, I really like David Robertson’s 1999 book Denmark Vesey (The Buried History of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It) and I leaned very heavily upon his work to produce Part 1 and 2 of “The hidden story of Charleston’s Denmark Vesey.”
Robertson reminds us of Sterling Stuckey’s piece in a 1966 issue of Negro Digest called “Remembering Denmark Vesey: Agitator or Insurrectionist?” Stuckey wrote: “Vesey’s example must be regarded as one of the most courageous ever to threaten the racist foundations of America.” Lest not also forget that Vesey was a free man during the height of chattel slavery, he owned his carpentry business and was a member of Charleston’s middle class.
But Denmark Vesey was not an integrationist. He was a Pan-African Revolutionary Nationalist. He did not want gradualism, only liberation for black people would suffice. Vesey understood that his so-called freedom was something given to him for a fee and freedom comes with conditions via the giver. However, liberation is not something asked for or given, it is an inalienable right that when denied must be taken. Thus, revolt, revolution, wars; call it what you will.
Terrorizing blacks by attacking churches and church members is as old as America’s original thirteen colonies. In Vesey’s Charleston, white nationalists burned the black church and also jailed hundreds of black church members whenever they wanted to. Since the Charleston assassination of nine “Mother” Emanuel A.M.E. Church members, including its minister, at least five reported burnings of black churches have occurred elsewhere in the nation.
Today, no Negro so-called leader dares to shout “Remember Denmark Vesey” to rally black people against white nationalism or American Apartheid. What Negro or black ministers, intellectuals, politicians or teachers ever mention Denmark Vesey? How many even get informed about this important black historical figure?
Even today there are so many lessons to be learned from the Denmark Vesey saga that impact black people throughout the Diaspora. For example, as a black person, are you the least bit confused about where your loyalty lies? Is your larger picture white America or the black Diaspora? Is it both, and if so, is that realistic? What do you really want from white America – freedom or liberation or integration? Do you honestly think you are “free?” Why?
Should black church doors be open during the day and evening for educational, cultural and recreational programs for the holistic betterment of black neighborhoods? Should every person’s worth be included in community development? For example, are there not many things that can be learned from black women who have cleaned for white people, taken care of their children and cooked for them sometimes for thirty-plus years? How can we use that knowledge and experience?
Al Calloway is a longtime journalist who began his career with the Atlanta Inquirer during the early 1960s civil rights struggle. He may be reached at Al_Calloway@verizon.net.