COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The slayings of nine people in Charleston wrote a grim new chapter into the history of one of the oldest black churches in the South.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is often referred to as “Mother Emanuel.”
Its pastor, The Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, was one of those killed in Wednesday night’s shooting. Pinckney also was a member of the South Carolina Senate, where he had served since 2001. The Ridgeland resident was first elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1997.
“We don’t like to see our church as a museum but still a place of change and still a place where we can hopefully change and work on the hearts and minds and spirits of all people,” Pinckney said in a 2013 welcome to a civil rights group that was visiting the church. His talk was posted on YouTube.
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The church was founded after Morris Brown, a free, black shoemaker and a Methodist, walked out of a predominantly white Methodist church in Charleston in 1816, an AME Church website states.
Brown formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston and served as pastor from 1818 until 1822.
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, Vesey was hanged and the church was burned. In his videotaped talk, Pinckney said the guns of South Carolina’s Citadel military institute, founded in the years after Vesey’s failed insurrection, were originally trained on the African American community where Emanuel was founded.
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.
In a reference to the church’s mission of bringing change, Pinckney told the 2013 visitors, “And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.”
The church has been a pillar for African-Americans’ moral and spiritual life, said Andre Rogers, a professor of church ministry at Columbia International University in Columbia.
“Emanuel has always been on the cutting edge of what’s going in the black community of South Carolina,” Rogers said.
“They’ve had their share of persecution, both natural and man-made, over the years and still have been a champion for the community in the midst of their own struggles,” he added.
Violence against those worshipping at African-American churches has been going on for centuries, both before and during the Civil War, as well as during the Civil Rights Movement, Rogers said.
Emanuel comes from the Hebrew name meaning, “God with us.” On the church’s webpage is a quote: “Jesus died a passionate death for us, so our love for Him should be as passionate.”
“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 was destroyed by the Charleston earthquake of 1886. The present building was constructed in 1891 and is near the city’s bustling downtown area.
But the homes nearby are old and most are not nearly as well-preserved as those farther down the peninsula near Charleston’s famous Battery.
Pinckney, named pastor at Emanuel in 2010, was the church’s 31st pastor since it was reorganized in 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Pinckney, 41, was a married father of two who was elected to the state House at 23, making him the youngest member of the House at the time.
Associated Press writers Seanna Adcox in Columbia and Meg Kinnard in Charleston contributed to this story.