Charleston Tragedy: 6 Things to Know About the Illustrious History of the Emanuel AME Church
The site of the tragic shooting in Charleston, S.C., has withstood natural disasters and hate crimes during its nearly 200-year history. During this sad moment, we send our prayers to the community who called Mother Emanuel their spiritual home.
The country is grieving after a gunman opened fire and killed nine, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, a historic Black church in Charleston, S.C., that is the oldest AME in the South.
The church boasts a storied history, constructed in 1816. It has lived through fires, hate crimes and the Civil Rights movement. But through it all, the AME has endured. We continue to send our prayers to the victims, their families, the church congregation and the city of Charleston.
1. The church is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South
Under the leadership of Rev. Morris Brown, the church was founded in 1816 after members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal Church left because of a conflict in burial grounds. According to a report out of the College of Charleston, Rev. Brown became the first ordained minister in the AME church, and approximately 1,400 worshippers followed him to Emanuel AME, or, as its congregation refers to it, “Mother Emanuel.”
2. The church was burned down in 1822
Years before the church was established, Denmark Vesey, who would become a leader in the church, had organized a slave rebellion that had failed. Undeterred, he encouraged the congregation to stage another rebellion on July 2, 1822. However, once a White slaveowner received word of the uprising, the rebellion was axed, the organizers were tried and executed and the church was set on fire.
3. Congregants held “underground” church services for more than 30 years
In 1834, the state of South Carolina outlawed all Black churches, forcing the congregation to meet in secret until 1865—the end of the Civil War—when they could formerly reorganize. It was then that it adopted the name “Emanuel,” meaning “God with us.”
4. The church was destroyed in an earthquake
Twenty-one years after formerly reorganizing, the church faced another trial when it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1886. It took five years to rebuild, which is when, under the leadership of Rev. L. Ruffin Nichols, it was given the towering steeple that marks the church today. According to the church’s website, Rev. Nichols and his wife are buried under the base of the steeple “so that they may forever be with the Emanuel that they helped to nurture.”
5. Booker T. Washington spoke at the church in 1909
During his visit through southern states, Booker T. Washington stopped by the church to speak to a diverse audience. The esteemed scholar spoke on the racial climate of the city and the country as a whole.
6. Martin Luther King led a rally at the church in 1962
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered an impassioned speech at Mother Emanuel, where he spoke of making the “American dream a reality.” After King’s death, Coretta Scott King led a march fighting for workers rights, and Emanuel AME was the marchers’ starting point.