Robert Barnwell Rhett Sr. certainly had a knack for speedy reinvention. The Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper owner was among the most vehement proponents of slavery and secession before the Civil War. Yet only a decade later, he was denying that slavery was the main motive behind the conflict. Rhett helped lead the way for generations of white Southerners who propagated the “Lost Cause” myth: the gauzy tale of kindly slave masters who had fought only for states’ rights. It was a pervasive myth in white Charleston, where “willful forgetting,” as authors Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts call it, became a way of life.
The married historians’ book Denmark Vesey’s Garden is a remarkable exploration of the radically different memories of antebellum Charleston that coexisted for 100 years. In white Charleston’s memory, your granddad wasn’t a slave trader, and slaves were happy “servants.” Old plantations were marketed to visitors as “gardens.” Black Charlestonians begged to differ. Immediately after the war, when it was still safe, they held citywide freedom festivals. Later, with Jim Crow laws grinding them down, they taught black history in segregated schools, quietly telling their grandchildren how they really felt about Old Master.
Starting with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the two worlds finally collided. Change was slow and fitful, but it was real. One emblematic example: A statue of Denmark Vesey, the leader of an 1822 slave rebellion, was erected in a public park in 2014, though not without contentious debate.
Kytle and Roberts caution against complacency in the face of racism. Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine African-Americans in Vesey’s old church in 2015, had visited the city’s historical sites ahead of the massacre—and learned all the wrong lessons.