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Gaillard Center, Mother Emanuel AME Church, and International African American Museum Partner to host Series of Events Marking “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary”

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Denmark Vesey, Charles Wilbert White, 1943. Courtesy the Gibbes Museum of Art

Press Release

This July, the Charleston Gaillard Center will partner with Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the soon-to-open International African American Museum (IAAM), to mark the bicentenary of freedom fighter Denmark Vesey’s planned uprising to free the enslaved people of Charleston through three days of free and paid cultural performances and conversations.

Taking place from July 14th to 16th, 2022, over the course of the “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary,”the Gaillard Center will open its doors to the Charleston community to acknowledge America’s difficult history of race and slavery, and use arts and entertainment to bridge divides, build dialogues, and support healing in a city that historically saw some of the first enslaved men, women, and children enter through its port, and only six years ago, witnessed the racially motivated murder of nine congregants at Mother Emanuel AMEC.

Consisting of discussion panels, musical and comedy performances, and installations, the three-day event will bring together prominent artists, scholars, educators, and the community to reflect on Denmark Vesey—a formerly enslaved man and respected, multilingual church leader and businessman—and redefine his place in American history. Attendees will participate in a vital journey of acknowledgement and exploration of the past, present, and future with conversations that reckon with the abominable truths and ongoing repercussions of slavery. The weekend will also include and center performances that aim to facilitate healing through the arts.

“The Charleston Gaillard Center is uniquely positioned to convene, elevate, and reflect the voices and issues that matter most to our community through the arts, and honoring Denmark Vesey—a significant historical figure in Charleston whose story is often misunderstood and underrecognized—and his legacy is an essential part of that work,” said Lissa Frenkel, recently appointed CEO of the Charleston Gaillard Center. “Our historic building stands just half a mile from where enslaved Africans first entered the United States, so in the spirit of healing and progress we want to recognize that history, grapple with it, and find a way to collectively frame it that will help the community and the country move forward. The Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and the International African American Museum have been vital partners in this process, amplifying the views and needs of the community as together we introduce this first-of-its-kind event that intends to educate, move, and inspire all who attend.”

The weekend will feature a panel discussion “Truth be Told: Vesey,” with stand-up comedian, television presenter and educator W. Kamau Bell; media mogul and television personality Charlamagne tha God; Mother Emanuel AMEC historian Lee J. Bennett Jr.; Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture Executive Director Dr. Tamara Butler; Kennedy Center Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact, poet and librettist Marc BAMUTHI Joseph; and International African American Museum President and CEO Dr. Tonya M. Matthews; a free outdoor concert that includes the Charleston Symphony and Lowcountry Voices; a comedy set from stand-up comedian, actor, and radio host DL Hughley; and an evening performance by GRAMMY® Award-winning multi-platinum singer Anthony Hamilton. A full lineup and schedule of events follows below.

The violence Vesey and his followers witnessed during their lifetime and endured after their capture has been echoed throughout subsequent American history: from the gross indignities of the Jim Crow South to modern-day American socioeconomic inequities to the continued racially motivated violence against the Black community, including the 2015 mass shooting at the Mother Emanuel AMEC.

“When I was growing up, the whispering about Denmark Vesey was deafening; it is time to speak and be heard,” said Lee J. Bennett Jr., historian, Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Authentic reckoning with the history of slavery in this country and with its aftermath and institutionalized echoes, is one of our nation’s greatest challenges—and the story of Denmark Vesey is a critical exemplar history must reckon with intentionally. No other community can take this on the way Charleston can,” reflected Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, International African American Museum President and CEO. “I am proud to have IAAM as part of this courageous and empathetic effort to bring thought-leaders and artists from across the country to join Charleston as we open conversation—and perhaps hearts and minds—to modern reflections on freedom and those who have paved the way forward to it.”

The “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary” recognition weekend is curated by Gaillard Center Artistic Associates Charlton Singleton and Jonathan Holloway, Gaillard Center CEO Lissa Frenkel, and producer Tony Clarke, in close partnership with Mother Emanuel AMEC and IAAM

Schedule of Events (subject to change):

  • Thursday, July 14th at 7:30 pm
    • “Truth be Told: Vesey”
    • Tickets start at $32
    • A discussion with leading American writers and thinkers about the truth around Denmark Vesey and his planned uprising, the impact and outcomes in the intervening 200 years, and a look at the present and future of those themes in the South today. Panelists include:
      • Lee J. Bennett Jr., Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church historian and panel moderator
      • W. Kamau Bell, Stand-up comedian, television presenter, and educator
      • Charlamagne tha God, Media mogul and TV personality
      • Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, President & CEO of the International African American Museum
      • Dr. Tamara Butler, Executive Director of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture
      • BAMUTHI (Marc Bamuthi Joseph), Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center, poet, and librettist
  • Friday, July 15th at 8 pm
    • “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary: Anthony Hamilton”
    • Tickets start at $35
    • A ticketed concert headlined by GRAMMY® Award-winning multi-platinum singer, songwriter, producer, and actor Anthony Hamilton. Hamilton has sold over 19.6 million albums, counting both independent and collaborative efforts, along with his latest studio album Love Is The New Black.
  • Saturday, July 16th at 5 pm
    • “Orchestrating Freedom: a free outdoor concert featuring the Charleston Symphony and Lowcountry Voices”
    • A free outdoor concert of selected music that evokes the American promise of freedom and the pursuit of liberty, in juxtaposition to the experience of Denmark Vesey and other enslaved individuals, performed by theCharleston Symphony led by its Associate Conductor, Kellen Gray, and Lowcountry Voices led by Nathan Nelson. Curated by the Charleston Symphony and Lowcountry Voices, this program will honor the lives lost and the voices silenced through race-based violence in the United States, while also paying homage to the legacies of Black leaders throughout history.
  • Saturday, July 16th at 8pm
    • “Denmark Vesey Bicentenary: DL Hughley”
    • Tickets start at $52
    • A ticketed evening comedy event featuring DL Hughley. One of the most popular and highly recognized stand-up comedians on the road today, Hughley also made quite an impression in the television, film, and radio arenas. DL can currently be heard nationwide as host of his own afternoon radio show “The DL Hughley Show” which is nationally syndicated in over 60 cities across the country.

For more information about the weekend, the full lineup and schedule of events, visit gaillardcenter.org/denmark-vesey.

About Denmark Vesey

Born either in Haiti or Africa in 1767, Denmark Vesey (vee-SEE) was sold to a slaver captain named Joseph Vesey in 1783, assuming the latter’s surname. He was a skilled carpenter and accompanied the captain on numerous voyages, eventually settling in Charleston. After seven years of bondage, in 1789 Denmark won the East Bay Street Lottery and was allowed to purchase his freedom, though his wife and children remained under the ownership of a different slave master.

As a free man Denmark remained determined to liberate the oppressed enslaved people of Charleston, and in 1822 organized what has been hailed by historians Douglas R. Egerton and Robert L. Paquette as “the most sophisticated collective [plan] against slavery in the U.S.” Vesey envisioned that after freeing hundreds of men, women and children, the liberated masses would all sail to Haiti to live as free citizens. However, his plans were leaked and ultimately foiled. One hundred and thirty-one Africans were arrested, with 92 put on trial and another 11 sent into permanent exile.

On July 2, 1822, Denmark was executed, though for fear that the community would make him a martyr to the cause of freedom, no one was allowed to witness his murder. To this day no one knows where Vesey was buried because the paperwork around his hanging and burial were destroyed. In total, 35 Black men were either hung or shot as a result of the never-to-be-realized revolution. In the end Vesey’s thwarted efforts were followed by an additional four decades of chattel slavery in the South, further dehumanizing Africans in Charleston, before the Civil War ended in 1865.

Today a monument of Vesey, erected in 2014, stands in Hampton Park, Charleston. It has been met with ongoing controversy as Vesey’s historical legacy remains misconstrued by the racialized lens of history with some still believing he was a criminal and a terrorist, while others recognize him for what he is, an extraordinary man and a Freedom Fighter whose actions were rooted in the spirit in which the United States was founded.

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