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  • Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy by Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts
  • Amanda R. Mushal (bio)
Denmark Vesey's Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy. By Ethan J. Kytle and Blain Roberts. (New York: New Press, 2018. Pp. 464. Cloth, $28.99.)

This study is, as Ethan Kytle and Blain Roberts note, the first to "trace the memory of slavery from its abolition in 1865 to the present" in Charleston, South Carolina (4). By taking this long view, the authors uncover not only the processes by which Lost Cause proponents constructed and reinforced the city's dominant narrative of race relations, but also, significantly, an ongoing history of challenges to this narrative from black Charlestonians. Building on the work of David Blight, W. Fitzhugh Brundage, and others, as well as Stephanie Yuhl's study of the emergence of Charleston's historic preservation movement,1 this project gained added urgency with the tragedy of the Mother Emanuel massacre in June 2015, in which a white supremacist murdered nine worshipers at the church originally founded by Denmark Vesey. Although Vesey himself features in only a small part of Kytle and Roberts's analysis, memories of his thwarted 1822 slave insurrection remain emblematic of ongoing contests over the role of slavery in the city's public memory. The insurrection and the 2015 massacre form double bookends to a study that traces ways that blacks as well as whites shaped and deployed memories of slavery from the immediate postwar [End Page 666] period through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era to the present day.

The authors have mined a wide array of sources, including unpublished Federal Writers' Project essays and correspondence, personal and associational records, city tour guide manuals, Green Book guides, guided tours, textbooks, African American memoirs, oral histories, and local newspapers. Sections of the book that deal with Charleston's twentieth-century preservation movement address the now-familiar story of historical preservation movements that privileged elite white memories of the past. Kytle and Roberts examine these efforts alongside educational campaigns by historians, textbook authors, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, while also demonstrating the role played by local newspaper editors in shaping public memory. In their treatment of these groups, Kytle and Roberts make clear that even as architects of the Lost Cause myth denied that slavery had been the cause of the war, their whitewashed memories of slavery and antebellum race relations lay at the heart of the narrative they created.

While tracing the story of white southerners' deployment of memory, Kytle and Roberts break new ground in demonstrating that the memory work of black Charlestonians and their white allies created an ongoing counternarrative to the Lost Cause myth. Perhaps most notably, they show that during the immediate postwar years, this counternarrative dominated public discourse. Through parades, speeches, and services commemorating the Fourth of July, Emancipation Day, and British emancipation, as well as the postwar flag raising at Fort Sumter and the dedication of the graves of Union prisoners of war at Washington Race Course (formerly the site of elite Jockey Club races), black Charlestonians appropriated historically white-dominated spaces and made slavery and liberation central to public commemorations of the war.

Twentieth-century campaigns to impose the Lost Cause narrative were similarly countered by African American efforts to find a "usable past" in memories of slavery, incorporate black history into classes at public schools and The Citadel, and reclaim spirituals' messages of oppression and resistance in the civil rights movement. By the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the tourist industry had also began to challenge Lost Cause interpretations, as the demands of northern and African American visitors led to the slow—and still incomplete—integration of slavery into public history.

Among the most timely and compelling chapters are those dealing with monuments. In contrast to scholarship arguing that monuments project [End Page 667] a largely uncontested statement of power, Kytle and Roberts demonstrate that local African Americans resisted monuments' white supremacist message even during the Jim Crow era. In 1887, Charleston whites dedicated a monument to John C. Calhoun, who had...


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pp. 666-668
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