cover image Denmark Vesey’s Garden

Denmark Vesey’s Garden

Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts. New Press, $28.99 (464p) ISBN 978-1-62097-365-3

As historians Kytle (Romantic Reformers and the Antislavery Struggle in the Civil War Era) and Roberts (Pageants, Parlors, and Pretty Women) show in this examination of the historical memory of slavery in Charleston, S.C., the chronological length and socioeconomic depth of Charleston’s commitment to slavery make it what one abolitionist called “the citadel and capital of American slavery.” After slavery’s end, freed people and their former owners battled over the parameters of emancipation; the former staged lavish annual pageants in celebration of liberation; the latter limited the freedoms of their ex-slaves through extremely repressive law codes, while insisting that their “Lost Cause” had been white liberty, not black slavery. From Charleston’s transition in the 1920s into a mecca for tourism through the Jim Crow era and beyond, white preservationists simultaneously whitewashed the history of slavery and turned African-American culture into a quaint symbol of the “Old South.” The 21st century has seen efforts in Charleston to more visibly and honestly acknowledge the local history of slavery—in, for example, plantation tours and plaques—but the massacre of worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in 2015 and the resurgence of open white supremacy connected to Trumpism lead the authors to question how much progress has really been made. Kytle and Roberts’s combination of encyclopedic knowledge of Charleston’s history and empathy with its inhabitants’ past and present struggles make them ideal guides to this troubled history. B&w illus. (Apr.)