Emanuel AME Church – Charleston, South Carolina
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SCIWAY offers our prayers and heartfelt condolences to the congregation of Emanuel AME Church following the June 2015 fatal shooting of nine church members, including the Reverend Clementa Pinckney. Other members lost in the tragedy were Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, the Reverend DePayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, the Reverend Daniel Simmons, the Reverend Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.
Overview of Emanuel AME Church
The Gothic Revival building that houses Emanuel AME Church in Charleston is a testament to the determination of the church’s founders and its early congregation. The present-day structure with its signature steeple was built in 1891, replacing an earlier wooden church from 1872 that was damaged in the Charleston Earthquake of 1886. Many of the brick and marble panels were restored between 1949 and 1951.
The origin of Emanuel AME dates to 1816, when Morris Brown organized a withdrawal of the Charleston Methodist Episcopal Church’s black members over a burial ground dispute. The newly-formed congregation quickly established themselves as an African Methodist Episcopal church, a denomination that was founded earlier in Philadelphia by the Reverend Richard Allen.
Brown was eventually jailed for violating laws restricting free and enslaved blacks from holding religious gatherings without white supervision. After the first incarnation of the church was burned under a cloud of suspicion over a suspected slave uprising, the congregation continued to worship until 1834, when all-black churches were officially outlawed. After a period of underground worship, the church formally reorganized publicly in 1865 and adopted the Hebrew name Emanuel, meaning “God is with us.”
The church is the oldest AME church in the South and one of the oldest black congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland.
History of Emanuel AME Church
Emanuel AME Church in Charleston has a long history of freedom, slavery, rebellion, and peace. The church began as an outgrowth of the Free African Society, formed in Philadelphia in 1787, and was originally comprised of both slaves and free blacks. In 1816, the year the AME denomination was formed, black members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal Church left over a dispute regarding burial grounds and joined the new African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination.
The new AME church met in the Hampstead suburb (Charleston’s French Quarter) and was known as Bethel because it was one of three AME churches on the Bethel Circuit. The new church was led by Reverend Morris Brown, himself a free black.
The church burned in 1822 after a planned slave insurrection known as the Denmark Vesey conspiracy was discovered. The church was the suspected meeting place for the planning of the rebellion. Though Reverend Brown was acquitted of conspiracy in the plot, he nonetheless was forced out of South Carolina. Former slave Denmark Vesey, the conspiracy’s architect, was not as fortunate. He had been a founder and active member of the church and was convicted of using his skills as a religious leader to encourage slaves and free blacks to join the uprising. Vesey was kept in Charleston’s City Jail until he was hanged, along with 36 of his co-conspirators.
Though the church rebuilt, it was forced to close in 1834 due to a new law prohibiting any black person – free or enslaved – to worship without the oversight of whites. Fear of future slave revolts had gripped the city, and many residents erected iron spikes along their gates – known as chevaux-de-frise – to prevent rebelling blacks from entering their homes. An example of the ironwork remains at 27 King Street.
However, members of the AME church continued to congregate; they met secretly and illegally until the end of the Civil War. Once blacks were permitted to organize their own churches in 1865, the church was reborn as Emanuel AME Church. The first church under this new name was built in 1872 at the current site, yet was severely marred in the great earthquake of 1886. The present Gothic Revival building replaced the damaged church in 1891 and was restored and stuccoed in 1949. Emanuel AME is known as the oldest AME church in the South.
Emanuel AME Church Memorials
Following the tragic shooting of nine church members – including the church’s minister, the Reverend Clementa Picnkney, also a South Carolina state senator – on June 17, 2015, people from all over the globe have expressed their love, grief, and support by leaving memorials outside of the church.
Those who wished to leave thoughts and prayers for others to read simply left messages on a tree outside the church, seen below. Several of the donated objects are in the process of being archived for the church by volunteers from the Charleston Archives, Libraries and Museums Council. Pieces of art, sculpture, flowers, and notes are among the many items given to the church as a sign of support from mourners.
Two months after the shooting, the entrance to the church is still flanked with new memorials. Each day people arrive at Emanuel AME to pay their respects to the victims, their families, the parishioners, and the church itself. (August, 2015)
Detailed Background of Emanuel AME Church
Below is an article that was contributed to the South Carolina Picture Project by Bill Segars of Hartsville. It originally appeared in his local paper, The Darlington New & Press. It was published in June of 2015, shortly after the shooting.
We mentioned a couple of weeks ago about venturing outside of Darlington County to learn about other church buildings. We did, and it was received very well. I did not plan on going back out again this quickly and certainly not for this reason. But after what happened on Wednesday evening, June 17, 2015, at one of “my friend’s,” I suspended the article that I was preparing on a Darlington County church for this one, a historic pillar of South Carolina culture and religion. This is not the forum to discuss the most unfortunate events of that evening, but it does afford us the opportunity to learn more about Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and in doing so, to honor the memory of the nine Christians who lost their lives so unnecessarily on that night. In my small way, I would like for my ability to share with others what I’ve learned about this church and its history to honor those who were lost as we ban together and move into the healing process.
Emanuel’s history goes back to 1791 when an organized group of free Negroes and slaves banned together under the name of “Free African Society” for the sole purpose of worshiping. It soon became a part of the Methodist religion, on the “Bethel Circuit.” They met in the Amherst and Hanover Streets area of the historic port city, where they owned a “field of graves.” In 1818 a dispute arose over this “field of graves,” and the Reverend Morris Brown pulled his congregation out of the Methodist faith and formed the “Hampstead Free African Church” with about 1,000 members.
In 1816 the Reverend Richard Allen formed a new church in Philadelphia, which developed into a new denomination, consisting of free Negroes. The denomination adopted the name of African Methodist Episcopal. It was this group that the Reverend Brown elected to join soon after Hampstead was formed in 1818. A parcel of land was acquired, and a wood frame building was built as the first African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South. Two years later, the Reverend Brown and other members of the church were arrested and jailed for violating state and local laws, which prohibited religious gatherings of slaves and free blacks without white supervision.
Denmark Vesey is a name which is very much associated with the church that we know today as Emanuel AME. Vesey was raised in the Virgin Islands as the personal servant of the slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey. In an attempt to make a new life for himself, Captain Vesey settled in Charleston in 1783. Denmark remained with the Captain until 1799 when he was able to purchase his freedom with his $1,500 winnings from a lottery ticket. With his freedom, Denmark began to establish himself as a successful carpenter, building many houses for other free blacks in the Charleston area. In December of 1821 Demark started organizing a slave rebellion, and when authorities were informed of the plot, 313 alleged participants were arrested, with 35 – including Denmark – being executed. The Reverend Brown, suspected but never convicted of being a part of the plot, was able to leave Charleston and became the second bishop of the AME denomination in Philadelphia.
With their leaders gone and their wooden church building burned, the congregation struggled to stay together. But together they stayed to build and worship in another building until 1834 when all all-black churches were outlawed. Even then this strong congregation continued to meet secretly until the end of the War between the States in 1865. At that time the congregation reorganized as a new church under the official name of Emanuel AME, meaning “God with us.” Seven years later the group had acquired land on Boundary Street, now know as Calhoun Street, and built a nice wooden structure. They were off and running at their present location, not to be denied their right to worship again.
Even though the church was not to be stopped again, it was not without setbacks. On the evening of August 31, 1886, Charleston was hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, killing 60 people and demolishing many buildings in Charleston, including Emanuel’s wood frame house of worship. As all of Charleston reeled in the massive destruction of their city, Emanuel began to make plans to rebuild. In light of the fact that Emanuel lost so many church buildings previously, the congregation learned it needed to build a stronger and larger building this time, one that would last for a long time. The Reverend L. Ruffin Nichols, pastor at the time, insisted on the Emanuel plan for the future along with the church’s present needs for a building.
As soon as the congregation could get its feet back on the ground after the earthquake, it hired noted Charleston architect John Henry Devereux to design a suitable building. Construction began in 1890, and the massive Gothic Revival brick structure was completed in 1891 for a cost of $35,000. The present bell tower, with its octagonal copper-clad steeple, was added in 1903. The interior was outfitted with the present elegant pipe organ in 1908 at a cost of $800. As the congregation continued to grow in numbers and financially, a total renovation of the building was completed in 1951, under the leadership of the Reverend Frank R. Veal.
This renovation was a detailed renovation, as the cost was $67,487, almost twice as much as the original building cost 58 years earlier. The interior marble panels were refinished, and the interior was completely redecorated with the original 1891 pews and gas lamps being maintained. The most noticeable change was that entire exterior brick work was stuccoed as it appears today. A seldom-noticed change is that the bodies of the Reverend Nichols and his wife were exhumed and entombed at the base of the steeple so that “they could be with Emanuel forever.”
With this work being completed, one would think the building would be set for generations to come; yet, another setback arose. This one was also experienced by all of Charleston, on September 21 through 22, 1989. Most of you remember those dates, but for the few who may not, that was the time of Hurricane Hugo. Need I say more? Emanuel was not destroyed, but it did cost $230,000 to repair it. Do you notice the increasing cost of each renovation or repair to the original $35,000 building? This exemplifies the congregation’s dedication to its heritage.
The benefits of these many trials are evident, not just as the congregation files into the 2,500-seat sanctuary for two services every Sunday, but in the many contributions that this church has made to the “Holy City” over the years. Unfortunately, tragedy again spawns the need for strength of faith as all faiths join together to pull this congregation through the trial of June 17, 2015, and to support the Emanuel name, meaning “God with us.”
Emanuel AME Church Info
Address: 110 Calhoun Street, Charleston, SC 29401
Emanuel AME Church Map
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