The history of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is a history of activism, resistance, community, and perseverance. Like other notable African American churches in Charleston, Emanuel AME, founded in 1816 by a group of free and enslaved Black Charlestonians, served many functions. The church, originally located near Hanover and Amherst Streets and named Hampstead Church, was not just a site of worship, but was also an important center of community. As the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South it is commonly referred to as “Mother Emanuel,” but did not gain this title until Mt. Zion AME broke off from Emanuel in 1882 to accommodate a growing congregation.
The ruling class of antebellum-era Charleston was entirely focused on preserving the institution of chattel slavery, which oppressed both enslaved and free and people of color. During this time, some churches provided a place where people of African descent could at least briefly escape some of the restrictions placed upon them by Charleston’s society. Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church became one of those places where communities were formed, African traditions were modified and preserved, knowledge was shared, and the flames of resistance were ignited.
Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia in 1816. The AME Church, which is the oldest organized African American church, rapidly gained traction and support in Black communities in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and South Carolina, reaching the city of Charleston by the 1820s. The Charleston AME Church’s original founder—Morris Brown—was instrumental in making the church a center of religion, activism, and resistance towards slavery. Vesey especially is remembered for his sermons that revolved around ideas of liberation. Not long after the AME church opened, Denmark Vesey attempted to organize a slave revolt in 1822. Vesey was arrested before he could carry out his plans for the liberation of enslaved Charlestonians and was executed along with over thirty other alleged participants. Following the executions, a white mob attacked and destroyed the AME church because of its relationship to Vesey. A new church was constructed but did not stay open for very long; white anxieties regarding slave revolts and the power of Black churches heightened following Vesey’s attempt.
Continuing to face resistance from white Charlestonians, the AME church officially closed in 1834. The congregation continued to meet secretly, most likely holding smaller gatherings in congregation members’ homes throughout the Antebellum era and during the American Civil War. When US troops entered Charleston in 1865, the AME church was able to formally reopen its doors with a congregation of 3,000 people.
When the church reopened, it was called Emanuel, or “God is with us,” and continued to be a site of religion, community, and resistance. Notably, the church was recognized as a center of political activity and activism immediately following the American Civil War. African Americans persuaded South Carolina Governor Orr to visit the church, where, according to historian Bernard Powers, Governor Orr “pledged to use the power of the state to protect the freedmen’s rights and safety.” The governor’s promises would not last as white hostility increased, culminating in violence during the 1870s as the South transitioned from the promises of the Reconstruction era into segregation and discrimination that characterized the Jim Crow era.
Emanuel AME’s congregation found themselves resisting slavery’s legacies of segregation, racial discrimination, and inequality throughout the twentieth century. Having social injustices pushed upon them by a new generation of white supremacists, members of Emanuel AME utilized their church in a similar fashion as the founders. The church’s function as a center for more than religious services encouraged discussions of politics, education, and social justice inside and outside the pews.
Emanuel AME’s continued relevance made the church an important site for demonstrations and rallies during Charleston’s long civil rights movement. Notable African American leaders including Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Septima Clark visited and spoke at Emanuel AME to advocate for issues ranging from economic advancement to social justice. In the twenty-first century, Mother Emanuel continues to be a center of activism. In the spring of 2015, the late Reverend Clementa Pinckney organized demonstrations and rallies following the shooting of Walter Scott by a North Charleston police officer.
In 2015, Emanuel AME’s congregation faced the legacies of slavery once again. A white terrorist targeted Mother Emanuel AME in his attempts to start a “race war” in Charleston. He attended a small group’s Bible study on Wednesday, June 17th before fatally shooting nine of the twelve members of the group. The victims’ names are Clementa Pinckney, Cythia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel L. Simmons, Sr., Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson.
The white supremacist intentionally chose Mother Emanuel because of the church’s historical significance, Black congregation, and its past and present connections to activism, resistance, and strong communities. Despite carrying out this brutal act of racial terrorism, the white supremacist was not successful in inciting a “race war” in Charleston. In the weeks following the attack on Mother Emanuel, communities across the country held memorials. Vigils and peaceful demonstrations organized across the city of Charleston. President Barack Obama delivered Reverend Pinckney’s eulogy, connecting the act of terrorism to slavery and its violent legacies. Obama stated that the attack on Mother Emanuel “drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random[ly], but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress… An act that [the killer] presumed would deepen divisions that trace back to our nation’s original sin.”
Mother Emanuel demonstrates all too clearly that the legacies of slavery continue into the twenty-first century in the form of violent acts of terrorism, institutionalized racism, and other forms of discrimination. Mother Emanuel’s congregation also represents an important piece of the puzzle; from the 1800s to today, Mother Emanuel’s community is a network of perseverance, support, and resistance to racial injustices.