The Wednesday night shooting at a downtown Charleston church that left nine people dead came against the backdrop of one of the South’s oldest AME congregations.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, on Calhoun Street, is often referred to as “Mother Emanuel.” Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor since 2010 and a state senator, was among those killed Wednesday during an evening prayer meeting and Bible study.
According to the church’s web site, Emanuel AME Church’s history dates to the fall of 1787 in Philadelphia, when Richard Allen founded the Free African Society, adhering to the Doctrines of Methodism established by John Wesley.
In 1816, black members of Charleston’s predominantly white Methodist Episcopal church withdrew under the leadership of Morris Brown over disputed burial ground.
“The Rev. Morris Brown organized a church of persons of color and sought to have it affiliated with Allen’s church,” the web site notes. “Three churches arose under the Free African Society and were named the ‘Bethel Circuit.’ One of the Circuit churches was located in the suburbs of Ansonborough, Hampstead, and Cow Alley, now known as Philadelphia Alley in the French Quarters of Charleston. Emanuel’s congregation grew out of the Hampstead Church, located at Reid and Hanover Streets.”
Brown formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston and served as pastor from 1818-22.
Denmark Vesey, another founding church member, led a failed 1822 slave rebellion that drove the church underground, said the Rev. Joe Darby, presiding elder of the AME Church’s Beaufort District.
After Vesey’s plot was reported, the church was burned. The church was rebuilt, but in 1834 all black churches were banned and members worshipped “underground” until 1865, when Emanuel AME Church was formally reorganized.
“It’s one of the most historic churches in the country,” said Rep. Seth Whipper of North Charleston. “The church has a history of serving freed men and serving slaves.
“Because of that history, you find a lot of really, really fine people in that church, from A to Z, from top to bottom, from East to West, great people who have been serving their community on all levels, from maintenance workers to circuit court judges,” he added.
A wooden two-story church built on the present site in 1872 but was destroyed by the Charleston earthquake of 1886. Today’s church structure was built in 1891 under the Rev. L. Ruffin Nichols, the web site said, and the brick structure with encircling marble panels was restored, redecorated and stuccoed between 1949-51 under the leadership of the Rev. Frank R. Veal.
Emanuel AME Church is listed among the National Park Service’s National Register of Historic Places. As the site notes, “The history of this congregation reflects the development of religious institutions for African Americans in Charleston.”
President Barack Obama spoke at the White House Thursday about the church killings, adding he and the first lady knew several members of Emanuel AME Church, including Pinckney.
“There’s something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening at a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace – in a place of worship,” Obama said.
The Associated Press and Tribune contributed.