Date of Award

5-2015

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Legacy Department

Historic Preservation

Advisor

Carter L. Hudgins

Committee Member

Barry Stiefel

Committee Member

R. Grant Gilmore III

Committee Member

Bernard Powers

Abstract

The commemoration of contested historical figures is a topic that is increasingly addressed by preservationists, historians, and those in local government. One such figure is Denmark Vesey, whose failed slave insurrection plot in 1822 forever altered the social and physical fabric of the United States. The ways in which this polarizing figure has been memorialized in Charleston, South Carolina, speak to the multivalent nature of Vesey himself as well as the shifting and complex racial politics in Charleston. In studying the four major commemorative efforts for Vesey that exist in Charleston, this thesis sheds light on the ways in which this sort of memorialization is navigated and provides guidance for those interested in producing a richer and more complete historic dialogue. The first two commemorative efforts discussed are the nomination of the Denmark Vesey House as a National Historic Landmark and the installation of a portrait of Vesey in the Gaillard Municipal Auditorium. These both occurred in 1976. The strife and inaccuracy that accompanied their production reflects a growing awareness of the need to honor figures such as Vesey coupled with a lack of experience in doing so. It also reveals the conflicted feelings of the public towards Vesey. The installation of a sculpture at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as a component of the 1991 Spoleto Festival exhibition Places with a Past reveals an era which saw the need to balance out the rosters of history, working to include hitherto underrepresented figures. Finally, the placement of the Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park in 2014 shows a willingness to accept a figure such as Vesey into the established commemorative canon. While the monument's long journey to completion sometimes resulted in public discord, its final acceptance can serve as a model for other communities which struggle similarly with controversial historic figures.

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