Nine-year-old Kennedy Singleton had a question.
“Why did that man shoot my granny?”
It was a tough question, but Kennedy’s aunt, Denise Quarles, calmly told her niece that the man didn’t understand her grandmother. Granny had done nothing wrong; the man just didn’t like black people.
Then, Kennedy asked another tough question.
“Will I be shot in a church, too?”
So go the family conversations in the wake of one of South Carolina’s most horrific crimes, when a basement Bible study became a bloodbath a year ago.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white man from the Midlands joined a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. An hour later, Dylann Roof is charged with starting a racism-inspired rampage, interrupting the discussion by shooting nine African-American churchgoers dead.
Among those killed was Myra Thompson, nine-year-old Kennedy’s grandmother and Quarles’ mother.
As they prepare to mark the first anniversary of the shootings, Kennedy, Quarles and other grieving relatives have mourned their lost kin in different ways.
Some cannot speak of the departed without crying; others can.
Some have strong feelings about the justice that should occur in the coming months or years; others are less opinionated, content to let God have the final word.
Yet the families are united in one key respect: they do not define their relatives as victims.
Rather, the families associated with the Charleston church shooting remember their lost relatives as the many things they were before they took their last breath: mothers and fathers, grandparents, children, siblings, friends, spiritual leaders, teacher, barber, librarian, politician, custodian, coach, college counselor and more.
They remember their senses of humor, their quirks, thoughtfulness and favorite sayings. They remember their presence during so many pivotal parts of their family’s existence, long before they were taken away during a few moments of gunfire.
‘She wasn’t just a victim’
Quarles’ mother, Thompson, had been a teacher in North Charleston for many years, helping shepherd rambunctious middle school students.
Thompson also was the matriarch of her family, keeping tabs on relatives and organizing family functions. Quarles talked to her mother a few times each day. She also received plenty of texts, emails, FaceTime requests and recommended articles from her mother.
Now, she receives no messages, and Quarles is left to fill her shoes.
“I never thought I would have to do it this soon,” she said.
Quarles’ brother, Kevin Singleton, who is Kennedy’s father, has responded to the tragedy by creating a nonprofit, Passion to Forgive, that helps students.
During the holidays, the nonprofit distributed toys to children. This month, it awarded five scholarships to high school students.
Singleton said the nonprofit honors the struggles and successes of his mother, who became pregnant with Singleton as a teenager but still completed a college education.
“She didn’t let anything stop her,” said Singleton, who lives in Charlotte.
At Thompson’s funeral last year, the church was filled by mourners. Until that moment, Quarles said she did not fully appreciate the network of love and friendship her mother had enjoyed.
“She wasn’t just a victim. She was a person. She had a family. She loved people. Always wanted to help,” said Quarles, who lives in Atlanta.
‘She wasn’t just a victim. She was a person. She had a family. She loved people.’
Denise Quarles on her mother, Myra Thompson, one of nine parishioners slain last June at Emanuel AME Church
Malcolm Graham feels similarly about his sister, Cynthia Graham Hurd, who also perished in the church shooting.
“We don’t talk about how she died. … We talk about her legacy, we celebrate her life,” said Graham, a former City Councilman in Charlotte.
Hurd was a wife, an aunt, a friend and a sorority sister for many of her 54 years of life, as well as a longtime Charleston County librarian, he says. Since her passing, college scholarships and a literacy foundation have been created in her honor.
“She was so many other things than a victim,” said Graham,
It is the same for those remembering Depayne Middleton.
Middleton’s death is considered an ugly punctuation to an otherwise full and beautiful life.
Ten years separated Middleton from her cousin, Waltrina Middleton, yet Waltrina remembers her cousin like a beloved big sister.
It was Depayne who helped Waltrina buy her first bra as she came of age in rural Hollywood, about 20 miles west of Charleston. It was Depayne who helped fashion Waltrina’s hair for her first day of high school.
Years later, Depayne had become a mother. Waltrina watched her cousin lavish that same sweet affection on her four daughters.
“People loved her because she was very attentive and was very present with you. … She gave our family so much life and energy,” said Waltrina Middleton, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and is a minister at United Church of Christ.
Altogether, the families of those who perished at Emanuel AME are unwilling to permit a moment of violence to hijack the previously established narratives of their loved one’s lives.
“I do miss her dearly. Every day and every hour,” Nadine Collier of North Charleston said of her late mother, Ethel Lance.
“(But) I don’t have no regrets with my mom,” Collier continued. “I treated her like a queen while she was alive, and I will continue treating her like a queen while she’s dead.”
‘We have to talk about these issues’
Much has occurred since the tragedy at Emanuel AME, both locally and nationally:
▪ A nation fatigued of mass shootings winced again, appalled by the suspect’s racial hatred and the perversity of the massacre’s setting – within a holy house. The crime struck a nerve nationally, enough to warrant the appearance of President Barack Obama at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and the slain leader of Emanuel AME.
▪ In a reaction to Roof’s allegedly racist motives, S.C. leaders removed the Confederate flag, long a divisive symbol, from the grounds of the State House and relocated it to a museum.
▪ The nation’s gun laws were given fresh scrutiny, as many wondered how Roof, who previously had been arrested on drug charges, legally could obtain the firearm allegedly used in the killings.
▪ Several relatives of the shooting victims astonished onlookers at a bond hearing for Roof, offering the suspect forgiveness for the slayings, which had occurred less than two days earlier. Such sentiments were credited with helping avoid additional violence following the shooting and contributed to Emanuel AME being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
▪ Roof, meanwhile, is facing the death penalty in both state and federal courts for charges stemming from the church slayings.
The families of those killed in the church basement pay Roof little attention. Most relatives won’t even speak his name.
By and large, they do not view Roof’s actions as those of an unhinged and delusional loner, but as a product of the racism that stubbornly lingers in the United States, a century and a half after slavery was abolished and half a century after the U.S. civil rights’ movement was in its throes.
“Racism is taught, it’s not the way you were born,” said Quarles, who thinks racial violence can be stemmed by encouraging children to interact with all races and to look beyond differences that are only skin deep.
As a child, Quarles attended Buist Academy for Advanced Studies, a magnet school in downtown Charleston, located across the street from Emanuel AME.
“I went to integrated schools,” said Quarles, who reconnected with some of her schoolmates after the tragedy. “Those classmates who don’t look like me were some of the first ones to reach out to comfort me.”
But many school populations in South Carolina remain racially skewed, and other victims’ relatives bemoan the limited support that they perceive is received by predominantly black schools, citing, for example, recent closures of rural black schools.
The school problems reflect a wider lack of concern for blacks in society, some family members say.
Graham wonders when S.C. legislators will follow up on the removal of the Confederate flag and address other social issues that deeply affect blacks, including the expansion of Medicaid, inadequate public-school funding and a criminal-justice system that disproportionately imprisons black males.
“We have to talk about these issues, uncomfortable as they may be,” said Graham.
In Waltrina Middleton’s opinion, racist public policies and attitudes persist, too, even if they are not as blatant as they once were.
As a teenager, Middleton remembers the suspicious stares she received from store employees when making a trip to a Charleston mall, as if she was sure to shoplift.
“You’re conditioned from birth, childhood at least, to be afraid, to behave a certain way,” says Middleton. “No one should live like that.”
More recently, she noted how state leaders, including Gov. Nikki Haley, responded to longstanding calls for the removal of the Confederate flag only after the slaying of nine black men and women.
“Now, we have the removal of the flag when the world is watching,” says Middleton, who thinks Haley addresses inequality only “when it is politically expedient for her.”
‘Too often, we skip ahead to a narrative of forgiveness,’ with everyone holding hands and singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ It’s important to ‘hold the evil to the light.’
Waltrina Middleton, whose cousin, Depayne Middleton, was among those slain at Emanuel
And while Haley and other leaders, including a former leader of Emanuel AME, praised South Carolinians for responding to the tragedy with grace and not additional violence, Middleton, Graham and others worry that response can be interpreted as too passive.
“Too often, we skip ahead to a narrative of forgiveness,” said Middleton, with everyone holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
It’s important, she said, to “hold the evil to the light.”
‘I don’t believe in ... hatred’
When Collier, who lost her mother, addressed Roof at his bond hearing last June, the world was shocked by the compassion she and others exhibited.
“I forgive you,” Collier said in court. “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Collier says she was surprised by the attention paid to her remarks. She knew no other way to react.
“I don’t believe in having hatred in my heart,” she said recently, before reciting a lesson from her mother: “Don’t do what people do to you. You’re bigger than that. You’re better than that.”
Collier is fond of saying “forgiveness is power.” But, a year after the shooting, she still occasionally is powerless to control her grieving.
‘I don’t believe in having hatred in my heart. ... Don’t do what people do to you. You’re bigger than that. You’re better than that.’
Nadine Collier of North Charleston, who lost her mother, Ethel Lance
She has good days and bad days, the bad days occurring more often than she would like.
On bad days, she said, her appetite goes missing, she doesn’t want to talk to anyone, and she cries. She cries a lot, she says, and sometimes cannot stop.
“This is kind of something I have to shake off on my own,” she said.
Collier does not sugarcoat the fact that Roof’s alleged actions deeply hurt her family and others. She does not understand what Roof was hoping to accomplish by shooting nine people dead.
Still, despite her pain and lack of understanding, Collier expresses sympathy for her mother’s alleged killer.
“He’s not a man. This is a child – still learning life. Now, all his life is gone,” says Collier. “I’m not saying what he did was right, but I feel bad for him, too.”
Collier notes Roof never likely will attend college, never marry, never have children. At age 21, his life was just beginning. Now, the government is trying to end it through the death penalty.
‘Hate has to be sentenced’
While some family members of those slain declined to comment on the death penalty, Charlotte’s Graham says he thinks Roof should be executed if he is found guilty of the charges, which Graham described as a “premeditated, calculated, sinister” attack on a race of people, a church and “humanity itself.”
“He has showed no signs of remorse. He has not asked for forgiveness,” said Graham. “Hate has to be put on trial. Hate has to be prosecuted. Hate has to be sentenced publicly.”
Quarles, too, supports the death penalty for her mother’s alleged killer.
She refuses, too, to be held hostage by his actions and let his actions dictate the story of her own life.
As she gently told her niece, Kennedy, no, she could not promise that she would not be shot in a church. But that doesn’t mean she or anyone else should expect to encounter the same violence Kennedy’s grandmother suffered.
“I’m not going to live life in fear,” said Quarles, “thinking that’s going to happen to me.”
Jason Ryan, a former staff writer for The State, lives in Charleston