Sunday, June 21, 2015

History returns to Charleston

From Jack Hitt:

(Denmark Vesey's) greatest contribution to African-American history may actually be his role in founding the Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Emanuel was where slaves could congregate, talk, and learn—where they began the move toward emancipation. Whether or not Vesey planned a rebellion there, the church was seen as a threat in Charleston. Vesey was killed in 1822, and Emanuel was burned to the ground soon afterwards. In 1834, black churches were outlawed in South Carolina. In 1865, Vesey’s son Robert designed a new church, which stood until 1886, when it collapsed in an earthquake. The current building dates to 1891.

After I finished high school in Charleston, in the nineteen-seventies, an attempt by the newly elected mayor, Joe Riley, to honor Vesey resulted in a portrait painted by Dorothy Wright. It was to hang in the entrance foyer of the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium, more or less across the street from Vesey’s church. Since no one knows what Vesey looked like, Wright painted him from behind, speaking to a congregation. When the painting was mounted, in 1976, many people I knew ridiculed it: What kind of portrait of a man shows only the back of his head? Not long afterward, it was ripped from the wall and disappeared, only to return after Riley said he would have a duplicate painted. It was restored to its position in the auditorium, firmly bolted to the wall.

The rest is here.

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