Egerton: The message that black slaves and freemen were getting was not what they wanted to hear. White church leaders stayed away from stories they would find dangerous: the Exodus, the brotherhood of all man.
More than that, when the A.M.E. church was founded in Charleston, it was the center of the black community. It was a church, it was a school, despite it being closed down because they were teaching literacy. It’s why the authorities regarded the A.M.E. church as so dangerous.
Appelbaum: In 1822, Denmark Vesey is accused of plotting a slave revolt. He is one of 35 executed. How does that change the way that the church is viewed?
Egerton: The two main ministers knew something was going on, but were not complicit. One person said that Morris Brown counseled Vesey not to do this, because the risks were too high.
Because the church was the center of black cultural autonomy in Charleston, because it taught literacy, it was targeted by the authorities. The church was closed routinely: 1818, 1819, 1820.
Had there been no attacks on the church, there would’ve been no conspiracy. Slaves are never happy being slaves, but they have to weigh the odds. Even in a state that is 61 percent black like South Carolina, there are armed white militias. John C. Calhoun was the secretary of war, and prepared to use overwhelming force.
Appelbaum: How do the attacks on the church push Vesey into open revolt?
Egerton: It made it very clear that whites were never going to give them any sort of autonomy. In 1818, when the church is closed down, one of Vesey’s friends goes to Sierra Leone, and Vesey thinks of going. Then he decides he’s going to stay and see what he can do for his sons—he has sons who are still enslaved by his first two wives. Vesey is 54. His friends call him the old man—the average life expectancy for blacks at this time was 34 years. He wants to free slaves, and take them to live in Haiti.
Appelbaum: What happens to the church?
Egerton: It’s razed—literally burned down. The two ministers are actually put on trial because they have left the state to attend a conference. There’s a law that free blacks cannot leave South Carolina. The mayor effectively exiles the ministers to Philadelphia.
The congregation splits up. They worship underground. Some of them go to white congregations.
Appelbaum: When the church was rebuilt in 1865, the carpenter who designed it was Denmark’s son, Robert Vesey Sr. What role does it play in Reconstruction era Charleston?
Egerton: It’s a focal point for political organization. For most white politicians in the nineteenth century, they come out of law, they come out of business—these are the venues that give them a leg up. For blacks, the church is pretty much it. It is their place to congregate, to organize. And a large number of Union army chaplains get involved in organizing. They start organizing chapters of the Union League as a stepping-stone to political organization, which invariably meet in black churches. And that is why churches all across the south are constantly being attacked, being torched.