Two hundred years after his hanging in Charleston, Denmark Vesey is finally starting to be included in modern discussions of slavery outside of historical circles. A former enslaved man in Charleston who had purchased his freedom, Vesey led an attempted liberation of enslaved Africans. In a time before telephones—and in a time when it was illegal for Black people to read or write—Vesey organized as many as 9,000 people as part of this plan. It was thwarted, and among more than 130 men arrested on conspiracy charges, Vesey and 35 other Black men were executed on July 2, 1822.

On June 4, 2022, Spoleto Festival USA presented a concert of music from the Black experience at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, where Vesey was a founding congregant. The event for congregants and members of the A.M.E. community began with remarks and a new work by Robin Coste Lewis, an extraordinary poet whose debut book of poetry, Voyage of the Sable Venus, won the National Book Award in poetry—the first time a poetry debut by an African-American had ever won the prize in the National Book Foundation’s history. From there, principal singers and choristers of Omar presented a wide-ranging program of spirituals and contemporary melodies, conducted by Vinroy Brown, Jr., and accompanied by Dr. Brandon Waddles. Below are images from the performance.

Commemorating the bicentennial of Vesey’s attempted liberation, arts organizations across Charleston, including the Charleston Gaillard Center and International African American Museum, are restarting conversations about this historical revolutionary. On Saturday June 25, Second Presbyterian Church and the Charleston Gospel Choir is presenting an evening of moving narration and music at 6:00pm. The Charleston Gospel Choir will perform moving spirituals and gospel standards including “Lawd, How Come Me Heah,” “Heaven Help Us All,” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black.” (More information here).

 

All photos by Leigh Webber