We all live on Calhoun Street—by Peter Eisenstadt

I also live on Calhoun Street. It’s in a different city, Clemson, South Carolina rather than Charleston, but it’s the same Calhoun, John Caldwell Calhoun (1782–1850), South Carolina’s most famous antebellum politician, and the best-known defender of slavery and the rights of the white South in the pre-Civil War era. And maybe we all live on Calhoun Street. Because Calhoun Street is more bigger and contains multitudes far beyond its namesake. Because on Calhoun Street in Charleston stands the Emanuel AME Church, the oldest black congregation in the South below Baltimore, and a living refutation of everything Johnny C ever believed in.

If you go to Calhoun Street in Charleston , in a park, atop a ridiculously high pedestal, something like 40 feet high, is a statue of Calhoun. The story goes the statue was mounted so high because when it was lower, and more easily reached, black men regularly urinated on Calhoun’s bronze body. But there is not a statue in Charleston of Denmark Vesey. Vesey was in 1816 one of the founding members the church. In 1822 he was the central figure in an abortive slave revolt in Charleston (though Vesey himself was a free black) that was betrayed shortly before it was to commence. After the quashing of the revolt, and Vesey and some 30 others were hanged, the AME Emanuel Church was burned. It remained in operations underground, to open only after the Civil War. In 2010 they finally dedicated a statue to Denmark Vesey, up in North Charleston, far away from the tourist areas in downtown Charleston, which is bestrewn with statues of white men, slave owners, Confederates, and others who spent their lives controlling and patrolling the lives of black people. There was much controversy about the Vesey statue—lots of people didn’t want to build a monument to a man who would have killed white people. This is the way it always has been—white people kill blacks and speak endlessly about black violence.

So to the current horrors. Our governor Nikki Haley said of the murderer, before he was captured: “While we do not yet know all of the details, we know that we will never understand what motivates anyone to enter of one of our places of worship and take the life of another.” But yes we do, Nikki, we do understand why this happened. Yes we do, Nikki. Yes we do.