"You rape our women, and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” That’s what gunman Dylann Storm Roof reportedly declared before murdering nine African-Americans at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday. Some have speculated that Roof chose the historic black church—and even the date of his horrific deed—because it was co-founded by Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was hanged for planning to lead a slave revolt in Charleston on June 16, 1822.
That's according to some historical accounts, but Joseph Kelley's 2013 book America’s Longest Siege: Charleston, Slavery, and the Slow March Toward Civil War, suggests that Vesey never plotted any such revolt. Instead, he may have been the victim of racist paranoia, much like the nine African-Americans whom Roof has confessed to murdering. Racism is a form of imagination, not just of domination. And across our history, whites have imagined blacks conspiring against them.
Denmark Vesey arrived in the United States as a teenager on a slave ship in 1781. Noticing the young man’s “alertness and intelligence,” the ship captain made Vesey his cabin boy and eventually his manservant in a well-appointed Charleston home. Vesey learned to read and write English and also spoke some French, both hallmarks of high status in South Carolina’s slave community.
Vesey’s status changed abruptly in 1799, when he won $1,500 in a local lottery. He used $600 to purchase his freedom; then he married a free woman of color named Susan, who was about 30 years his junior. And shortly after that, Denmark and Susan Vesey joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
The AME had been founded by Philadelphia’s Richard Allen, who resented the racism and consdescension of white Methodists. Clearly, Charleston’s two AME congregations represented a threat to white supremacy. When Allen came to preach in Charleston in 1818, 140 black congregants were arrested for violating a city ordinance against worshipping without a white person present. ...