IN JULY, Lee Bennett Jr. stood at the podium of the Gaillard Center in downtown Charleston, S.C., as part of a three-day bicentenary commemoration of Denmark Vesey — a free Black man who had planned what could have been the largest organized resistance by enslaved people in U.S. history. Bennett brought both American history and personal history with him that day: The space where he spoke used to be his own neighborhood. There are some places where the veil between past and present feels especially thin.
The next day, Bennett offered me a tour of Mother Emanuel AME Church, where he is the historian. He spoke about Vesey, a founding member of Hampstead AME Church, established in 1818. In 1822, Vesey was arrested and executed, along with 34 others, for his plan to liberate the enslaved people of Charleston. Later that same year, a white mob destroyed Hampstead Church. By 1834, the city of Charleston made it illegal for Black congregations to meet, pushing the congregation to gather in secret until after the Civil War. In 1865, they came out of hiding and took the name Emanuel, “God with us.”