A protest resulted in the founding of Emanuel AME Church, whose first leaders, including the Rev. Morris Brown, promptly ran afoul of the white authorities for asserting their independence and attempting to educate members of the black congregation.
Another protest, this time orchestrated by angry whites responding to the threat of a slave revolt, turned the modest church building to rubble. Founding member Denmark Vesey was alleged to have plotted the rebellion. He and 34 others were killed. Brown disappeared from sight for months, probably hidden by friends.
This tumultuous beginning — and the many intervening years, with their triumphs and traumas — will be remembered this week on the occasion of Emanuel’s 200th anniversary. The festivities will culminate on Sunday with a special morning service followed by the unveiling of the Emanuel 9 Memorial design by Michael Arad, the man largely responsible for the critically acclaimed 9/11 Memorial.
“We could not help but celebrate this bicentennial of the founding of this church with glory and praise,” the Rev. Eric S.C. Manning, pastor of Emanuel AME, said in a statement. “We have persisted in the face of racial hostility, survived the burning of the church to the ground in 1822; its destruction in an earthquake in 1886; and the horrific murders of nine members of the congregation on June 17, 2015.”
Special anniversary events, all open to the public, are slated Wednesday through Sunday.
- A revival service is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the church, 110 Calhoun St. The service features guest preacher the Rev. Justin J. Gamble, pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Georgetown.
- At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and vice president of religious affairs and external relations for the National Action Network, will lead a second revival service at Emanuel.
- An anniversary banquet is planned for 7 p.m. Friday at the Francis Marion Hotel, 387 King St. Tickets are $50 each. For reservations, contact Sylvia Blake at 843-722-2561 or email email@example.com.
- The 200th anniversary worship service is 9:30 a.m. Sunday. It will be led by the Rt. Rev. John R. Bryant, a retired bishop of the AME Church.
- The Sunday service will be followed at 12:30 p.m. by the unveiling of the Emanuel 9 Memorial design. Arad, a partner with Handel Architects in New York City, will be present to describe the design.
“While we celebrate our history each year in July, we feel particularly compelled this year to condemn terrorist acts against people of color and be the place where others may engage in dialogue about achieving racial reconciliation once and for all,” Manning said.
The period leading up to the Civil War was a risky time to attempt to operate an independent black church. After local authorities, then part of a nervous minority of whites in the city, heard about Nat Turner’s 1831 Virginia rebellion, they outlawed black churches altogether.
It wasn’t until the end of the war in 1865 that black congregations in Charleston could regroup and begin practicing their faith collectively, out in the open.
Vesey’s son, Robert Vesey, led the effort to build a new church after the war, but the great earthquake of 1886 destroyed it. In 1891, the third iteration of the church rose on the north side of Boundary Street (today Calhoun Street), for no black institutions were permitted south of that dividing line.
And there it has stood since, welcoming worshippers and hosting important speakers such as Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.
It was thought to be a safe space, then, three years ago, a self-avowed white supremacist shot and killed nine people gathered for Bible study on a Wednesday night.
The mass shooting galvanized concerned citizens here and across the country, bringing many together for conversations about race.
“We’ve gone through so many trials and tribulation over last 200 years,” said Charleston Councilman Dudley Gregorie, a trustee of Emanuel. “I think what’s most significant is our resiliency. I see the next 100 years being the same. I think the church has a mission being in the forefront of the issues, even if it requires sacrifice.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the historical likelihood that Emanuel AME Church was not burned after Denmark Vesey's slave rebellion but dismantled, and that Rev. Morris Brown possibly was not imprisoned but went into hiding.