One of the questions of the tragic killing of Rev. Clementa Pinckney and eight of his church members at Emanuel AME Church is: Why him? And why now?
Maybe, just maybe, the answer is the date — June 17. It was on this date that Dylann Roof opened fire. It was also on this date, 193 years earlier, that Denmark Vesey, a founder of Emanuel, planned to launch a slave rebellion in Charleston.
We don’t know what is in Roof’s twisted mind, but we do know the history and significance of Vesey and his rebellion, and we do know that Roof spent untold hours on the Internet immersed in the pathology of white supremacy, race wars, rebellions and perhaps the history of South Carolina.
Did Dylann Roof see himself as a heroic figure committing a daring act that would spark a race war in America? It now seems that this indeed was his motivation.
First the history. Denmark Vesey was born a slave in 1767 on the Caribbean Island of St. Thomas, then a colony of Denmark. His slave name was Telemaque. He was extremely bright and at age 14 was purchased by a Bermudian ship captain and slave trader named Joseph Vesey.
Telemaque learned to read and write, and he could speak French and Spanish as well as English. He became Vesey’s personal assistant and translator, and when Vesey retired to Charleston, Telemaque came with him and was “hired out” as a carpenter.
In 1799, Telemaque won $1,500 in a city lottery and was able to buy his freedom for $600. He took the name Denmark Vesey. Though he was able to buy his freedom, his wife and children were still slaves as their master would not sell them. One can only imagine the pain and outrage that burned within him.
Vesey became a member of the Second Presbyterian Church, and in 1818 he left the church with many other blacks and co-founded Emanuel. Many white clergy actively supported the founding of Emanuel. Today, the two churches stand within sight of each other — less than two blocks apart.
As an independent black church, Emanuel grew quickly and soon had 1,848 members, making it the second-largest AME church in America.
As a young man, Vesey learned of the 1804 slave rebellion in Haiti, after which many of the Haitian slave owners fled to Charleston, bringing their slaves, who became known as “French Negroes,” with them. The slaves also brought with them their thirst for freedom and their memory of a successful rebellion.
By 1820, the Charleston region had 14,000 Negroes and only 10,000 whites, and Vesey had begun to plot a slave rebellion with the hope of starting an uprising in Charleston with the killing of whites and then fleeing with his rebels to Haiti.
The congregations of Second Presbyterian and Emanuel were the core of Vesey’s support, as their combined congregations represented 10 percent of the black population of Charleston — with supporters of the rebellion spreading to perhaps thousands among slaves on the plantations surrounding Charleston.
Shortly before the date of the planned rebellion, a slave told his master of the impending revolt. Hundreds were arrested, and Vesey — along with 34 others — was hanged.
The backlash in Charleston, across South Carolina and the entire slaveholding South set off a frenzy of fear, repression and violence. Emmanuel Church was burned to the ground.
This is not the place to recount the full story of Vesey and the impact of his rebellion, but suffice to say it traumatized Charleston and the scars — perhaps even bloody wounds — continue to this day.
One tangible result of the rebellion was the creation of The Citadel, what is now the military college of South Carolina. It was created specifically to provide armed troops in the heart of the city to put down future rebellions. The old Citadel building stands today in Marion Square — within sight of both the Second Presbyterian Church and Emmanuel AME Church.
In 1976, with little fanfare or notice, Vesey’s house at 56 Bull St. was designated a national historic landmark. But, in the 1990s, when activists began pushing for a statue of Vesey, the reaction from much of the white community was outrage.
It was only in 2014 that a statue to Vesey — not as a liberator but as a carpenter — was erected in Hampton Park, far out of sight of the millions of tourists who come to visit Charleston each year and learn of its history.
South Carolina’s history from its beginning in 1670 until today is a story of race and rebellion, violence and death. From the American Revolution to the first shots at Fort Sumter that set off our nation’s bloodiest conflict, through the struggles for civil rights, our state is replete with people — on all sides — who have seen themselves as heroic figures in historic struggles.
As a state, our triumphs are all tangled up with our tragedies.
Back to the fateful date — June 17. Vesey’s rebellion was set to begin at midnight on June 16, thus the actual killing would have begun on June 17, 1822 — 193 years to the day before Dylann Roof walked into Vesey’s church and killed its pastor and eight other members.
Is this just a coincidence? Only time will tell, but it would explain why this man got in his car on this day, and drove 110 miles to this place and killed these people.
As the great Southern writer William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the S.C. New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Email him at email@example.com.