Today the Denmark Vesey Monument in Hampton Park is a widely accepted and appreciated part of Charleston’s memorial landscape. The statue and its surrounding plantings form a peaceful corner of the park, a spot which draws locals and tourists alike as both an agreeable place to visit and a symbolic touchstone in the history of racial dynamics in Charleston. The importance of Vesey as a historic figure only seems to be increasing as his story and legacy become more widely known. His statue stands as a well-loved and significant counterpoint to other memorial art in Charleston and is quickly becoming a piece that storytellers lean on when explaining Charleston’s unique history. The monument’s value has proved to be all the more immediate in light of recent events which prove heart-rendingly that the racial wounds of our shared history continue to affect the present in ways both tragic and hopeful.
However, the road to this monument’s erection was anything but easy. The Denmark Vesey and the Spirit of Freedom Monument Committee began work to install the statue in Charleston way back in 1996. Work began slowly, for years remaining little more than an idea—the desire to memorialize Vesey and to honor the spirit of freedom which he embodied—coupled with a streak of stubbornness. The Committee knew that their choice of Vesey might mean that theirs would be an uphill battle, but they decided early on not to compromise on the monument’s subject.
Their journey let to the formation of a non-profit, many City Council committee meetings (some more collegial than others), and a variety of setbacks as funds slowly trickled in. The decision to use sculptor Ed Dwight as the artist proved fortuitous—Mr. Dwight took the success of the project personally and contributed financially as well as artistically to its completion. When the owners of Marion Square, the originally intended location for the statue, declined to have it placed there, the Committee saw it as a challenge to find a better location. Together with Mayor Joe Riley, they selected Hampton Park, which was similarly significant in terms of its proximity to the Citadel, but which provides a more contemplative setting.
The prospect of a Denmark Vesey statue in a public park in Charleston sparked strong opinions, many of which were not positive. It seemed that every time the proposal made the news, such as when the Committee went before City Council, a new rash of indignation and outright anger made its way into the opinion columns of the Post and Courier. However, a steady groundswell of support bolstered the project along, and when it finally was unveiled in 2014 it was before a large and appreciative audience. The proof was in the pudding: while Vesey remains a controversial figure, the enmity surrounding the construction of the monument subsided, and the statue became a place to teach, learn, or just sit and reflect.