EMANUEL AFRICAN METHODIST EPISCOPAL CHURCH –
often referred to as Mother Emanuel, is a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1816, Emanuel AME is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the Southern United States, with the first independent black denomination in the United States as well as one of the oldest black congregations south of Baltimore.
The church was founded as the Hampstead Church on Reid and Hanover Streets in 1815 or 1816 or 1817 or 1818 by African Americans who were former members of Charleston’s three Methodist Episcopal churches. State law and city ordinance required lawful churches to be dominated by whites, though African Americans held separate services, usually in the basements. Hampstead Church was part of the “Bethel circuit” of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States, founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1816 by Richard Allen. They created an independent congregation because of a dispute over use of the black burial ground. The white-dominated churches had increasingly discriminated against blacks in Charleston, culminating in Bethel Methodist’s construction of a hearse house over its black burial ground. In 1818 church leader Morris Brown left a white Methodist church in protest, and more than 4,000 Black members of the city’s three Methodist churches followed him to create this new church.
State and city ordinances at the time limited worship services by black people to daylight hours, required that a majority of congregants in a given church be white, and prohibited black literacy. In 1818, Charleston officials arrested 140 black church members and sentenced eight church leaders to fines and lashes. City officials again raided the church in 1820 and 1821 in a pattern of harassment.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, was implicated in a slave revolt plot. Vesey and five other organizers were executed on July 2 after a secret trial. Additional trials took place over the following weeks, with more than 30 men executed and others deported from the state. Their original church was burned down by a crowd of angry whites. After the congregation met underground for a period, it rebuilt the church after the Civil War.
Rev. Morris Brown was imprisoned for many months, though never convicted. Upon his release, he and several other prominent members fled to Philadelphia; others managed to reconstitute the congregation in a few years.
In reaction to Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, in 1834 the white-run city of Charleston outlawed all-black churches. The AME congregation met in secret until the end of the Civil War in 1865.
AFTER THE CIVIL WAR –
AME Bishop Daniel Payne installed Reverend Richard H. Cain as the pastor of the congregations that would become Emanuel (“God with us“) AME and Morris Brown AME. In 1872, after serving in the South Carolina Senate (1868–72), Cain was elected as a Republican Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, continuing a tradition of religious leaders serving in political positions.
The congregation rebuilt the church between 1865 and 1872 as a wooden structure, under the lead of the architect Robert Vesey, the son of the abolitionist and church co-founder Denmark Vesey. After an earthquake demolished that building in 1886, President Grover Cleveland donated ten dollars to the church to aid its rebuilding efforts, noting that he was “very glad to contribute something for so worthy a cause.” A Democrat, he also donated 20 dollars to the Confederate Home, a “haven for white widows.”
The current brick and stucco building was constructed in 1891 on Calhoun Street. This and other post-Civil War black churches were built on the north side of Calhoun Street; blacks were not welcome on the south side of what was known as Boundary Street when the church was built. The building was designed by leading Charleston architect John Henry Devereux, whose work was begun in the spring of 1891 and completed in 1892.
20TH CENTURY –
In March 1909, Booker T. Washington, president of Tuskegee Institute and a national leader, spoke at Emanuel AME Church. Among the attendees were many whites, including a member of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and Robert Goodwyn Rhett, the mayor of Charleston, lawyer and controlling owner of the News and Courier newspaper.
By 1951, the church had 2,400 members and completed a $47,000 ($434 thousand in 2017 dollars) renovation project. This earned an “outstanding improvement” award from the Charleston Chamber of Commerce.
At a 1962 church meeting, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. Wyatt T. Walker of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference were guest speakers, urging church members to register and vote. At the time, most African Americans in the South were still disenfranchised, which they had been since the turn of the century when the white-dominated legislature passed restrictive conditions in a new constitution. In 1969 Coretta Scott King, then widowed after King’s assassination, led a march of some 1,500 demonstrators to the church in support of striking hospital workers in Charleston. At the church, they faced bayonet-wielding members of the South Carolina National Guard; the church’s pastor and 900 demonstrators were arrested.
The church building was damaged in Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Although major repairs were made, the tin roof soon rusted and leaked. It was changed out for interlocking copper shingles.
21ST CENTURY –
As of 2008, the church had more than 1,600 members and assisted the Charleston Interfaith Crisis Ministry and other charities. The church is involved in the local arts community, including hosting an art show in 2013 and concerts by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Gospel Choir.
In 2010, senior pastor and state senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney was noted as following in the tradition of earlier church leaders, such as the Reverend Richard H. Cain, in serving as both a religious and political leader.
On December 31, 2012, the church held a watchnight service celebrating 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863. Charleston’s annual Emancipation Day Parade on January 1 ends at Emanuel AME Church.
THE TRAGEDY –
On June 17, 2015, nine people were shot and killed inside the church. The victims included Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons. A 21-year-old white male, was arrested shortly afterward and charged with nine counts of murder. The killings were investigated by law enforcement officials as a possible hate crime. Pinckney, as well as eight congregation members, were killed in the attack. According to the FBI, the shooter left a manifesto detailing his racist views before the shooting. The Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, Sr. served as the interim pastor from June 17, 2015, until early 2016. On January 23, 2016, The Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark, was appointed pastor. She was the first woman to lead the congregation in its 200-year existence. In June of 2016, the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning became Pastor, and currently serves the people of Mother Emanuel.
THE BUILDING –
Emanuel AME Church has one of the few well-preserved historic church interiors in the area, with original features including the altar, communion rail, pews, and light fixtures. In December 2014, the church publicized fundraising to build an elevator to make the building more accessible. A pipe organ was installed in 1902. The church has a capacity of 2,500, making it among Charleston’s largest black churches.