Last night, a white man shot and killed nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
But it’s far from the first act of violent racism and hate that the church has seen: 193 years ago, slaveowners burned the church to the ground after executing 35 of its members for planning what would have been the largest slave revolt in American history.
Perhaps the most chilling detail: the slave revolt was planned for June 16, 1822. The shooting last night took place just one day after the anniversary of that date.
It’s not clear whether the shooter knew the significance of the date he chose. (Update: the suspected shooter has been identified as Dylann Roof, and he is in custody.) But he targeted a church with a long history of black activism.
That history began with Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, who planned a massive slave uprising in the city: slaves would kill their masters while they slept during the night of July 14, and then get to the city’s docks and sail away to Haiti, the site of a successful slave rebellion against the French 20 years earlier.
But as the authorities closed in on the conspirators, he moved the date of the rebellion up to June 16. He was caught before it took place and executed the following month, and the Emanuel AME church was burned to the ground.
Douglas R. Egerton, who wrote a book about Vesey’s life, told Fusion that he wasn’t sure if the date of the shooting was a coincidence.
“When I then read it was a young white man, the word terrorism springs to mind,” Egerton said. “This is not just any other black church, this is the black church in the entire state that has been the focus of black activism, black autonomy. This is an act of terrorism.”
Vesey was raised as a slave in the Virgin Islands. He came to Charleston with his owner, Capt. Joseph Vesey after sailing around the Atlantic. He learned English, French, and Spanish, and became a skilled carpenter.
In 1799, he bought his freedom from his owner for $600 after winning it in a lottery. “He goes to bed a slave, and wakes up, January 1, 1800, as a new man,” Egerton said.
But life as a free man was far from perfect. Slaveowners still owned Vesey’s wife and children, and city authorities kept shutting his church down under laws outlawing black congregations. “If the white authorities weren’t waging the war on the church, this conspiracy wouldn’t have happened,” Egerton said.
According to Vesey’s plans, the escaped slaves would start a new life in Haiti. They were in contact with black leaders there, who placed ads in American newspapers calling on skilled blacks to come to the island. By late 1821, when the plan was being worked out, Vesey was at least 55 years old, far beyond the life expectancy for black men at the time. He likely felt that this was his last chance to make a difference.
“He was not Martin Luther King, but his world was not Martin King’s world,” Egerton said. “Whites would die in the process, and Vesey was not soft about that.”
But a co-conspirator told his owner, and the plan was foiled in early June 1822. Vesey and his co-conspirators were tortured and hung. According to a minister who was with Vesey before he died, he allegedly whispered that “the work of freedom will go on,” Egerton said.
The Emanuel church that Vesey helped found was rebuilt, then closed after black churches were outlawed in 1834. The congregation worshipped underground until it restarted in 1865 following the civil war, in a church designed by Vesey’s son Robert. It was destroyed again in an 1886 earthquake, and the church’s current building was completed in 1891 a couple blocks away, according to the history on the church’s website.
The church continued its legacy as a hub of African-American activism in the twentieth century, hosting marches during the civil rights movement and a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
Vesey has been somewhat lost to history—there are no images of him from his time, and he usually gets only a paragraph in textbooks (although three books about him, including Egerton’s, were written in 1999). Controversy over Vesey was sparked last year when the church and private donors erected a statue of him. In a city full of statues of slaveowners, some (white) commentators denounced the plan to commemorate Vesey, calling him a “terrorist.”
“I don’t think the job of historians is to identify heroes and villains,” Egerton said. “He’s a very complicated guy because he lived in a very complicated world.”