Emanuel donates 50 plus boxes of correspondences sent after tragedy to historical society

Correspondences sent to Emanuel AME Church shortly after the church shooting tragedy contained drawings from youths at a religious camp. The church recently donated more than 50 boxes worth of correspondences to the S.C. Historical Society for preservation. Provided/S.C. Historical Society

It's been four years since the impact of the Emanuel AME shooting echoed across the globe and inspired thousands to extend their support through handwritten letters and notes.

Many still vividly remember how that heinous act of racial violence in downtown Charleston devastated the world.

Now, thanks to a plan to preserve the correspondences, the international reaction to the tragedy won't be forgotten.

Emanuel recently sent more than 50 boxes worth of cards, letters and other correspondences to the South Carolina Historical Society. The donation provides researchers with primary source documents for years to come, offering insight into how the shooting led thousands to grieve and inspired them to demonstrate love in the face of hate.

The Rev. Eric Manning, pastor of Emanuel, called the preservation of the writings a "tremendous blessing" for victims' families, survivors, the church and the community.

Almost immediately following the shooting that left nine worshipers dead at the historic black church, Emanuel was inundated with thousands of teddy bears, candles, flowers and letters that were both mailed to the congregation and laid outside the church.

Emanuel donates 50 plus boxes of correspondences sent after tragedy to historical society

Emanuel AME Church recently donated more than 50 boxes worth of correspondences related to the church shooting tragedy to the S.C. Historical Society for preservation. Provided/S.C. Historical Society

Shortly afterward, the church assembled a group of cultural institution professionals, known as the Charleston Archives, Libraries, and Museums Council, who stepped in to help by moving vulnerable pieces inside.

This occurred for a few months, until a lawsuit was filed that sought transparency around monetary donations and the correspondences underwent legal audit for two years.

SLED is currently investigating the church's finances in a separate probe but that is not expected to impact plans to archive the letters.

Faye Jensen, the society's director, said the collection of donated correspondences already has been reviewed by attorneys.

"I imagine that the collection could possibly be subpoenaed for the investigation, as this has happened to the SCHS (and many other repositories) in the past, but is not an issue at this time," Jensen said.

In years since the tragedy, CALM has provided the church's leadership with information regarding the needs and costs involved to organize, store and preserve the collection, which includes other items, such as artwork, quilts and stuffed animals.

Manning said the church had to realize its limitations and bring in the necessary expertise to handle the correspondences as other houses of worship have done following tragedies.

The pastor didn't take note of any particular writings, but he said their sheer number gives him strength when he remembers how people took time to draw pictures or write words of inspiration.

"Sometimes, at the lowest part of the day, its encouraging to reflect on those," he said.

Some of the volunteers who helped organize the materials were brought to tears as they read letters from children.

One batch of handmade cards from a youth camp in North Carolina contained colored drawings with scriptures and words of faith. One card depicted a sun peeking from behind mountains with a verse from the Book of Psalms: "Joy comes in the morning." 

"Know that you are not forgotten," one camper wrote.

Another contained a scripture from the Gospel of Mark: "All things are possible for one who believes."

Celeste Wiley, visual materials archivist with the society, was part of the original group who began going through the items shortly after the shooting. She'll also work on archiving the materials, and noted the offerings from children were most moving.

She recalled a painting that children sent to "Mrs. Cynthia's Library" in honor of Cynthia Graham Hurd, one of the victims who worked as a librarian.

"It’s hard for me to deal with the fact that little kids, particularly kids of color, have to be told what happened,' said Wiley, who knew Hurd. "I can’t imagine being a child and having to deal with it. I know how painful it is as an adult.”

Going through the materials also raised conversations about second-hand trauma, a link that is increasingly being discussed in the archive field, Wiley said.

Emanuel donates 50 plus boxes of correspondences sent after tragedy to historical society

Emanuel AME Church recently donated more than 50 boxes worth of correspondences to the S.C. Historical Society for preservation. Provided/S.C. Historical Society

There were times when the volunteers had to step away from reading the collection.

“All of us had some moment of breaking down or crying," she said. "It's just hard to get through."

Archivists will begin in January going through the correspondences that will eventually be housed at the Addlestone Library on the College of Charleston Campus.

The writings won't be publicly displayed but they will be available for research purposes and for members of the church and victims' families to view. Emanuel is also working to house three-dimensional materials (quilts, teddy bears, etc.) inside a neighboring building at 113 Calhoun St.

In tragedies similar to the Emanuel shooting, artifacts have been lost, the archivists noted.

For instance, the writings sent to 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama, where four girls were killed after Ku Klux Klan members planted a bomb at the church, do not survive, Wiley said. About 90 percent of the correspondences sent to Jackie Kennedy after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was destroyed.  

The preservation of the materials is important because the volume of correspondences shows the level of impact, said Virginia Ellison, director of archives and research with the society.

A single box of correspondence contained writings from 47 states and five countries. The letters sent to the AME church crossed denominational and religious lines, with representation from Jewish, Muslim and Christian faith groups.

One letter sent from Finland addressed only to "the church in South Carolina" made it to Emanuel, which speaks to how the Postal Service worked ensure the letters got to the right place, Ellison said.

Many writers experienced personal tragedies and wrote from a place of understanding, said Meg Moughan, records manager with the city of Charleston.

Decades from now, these primary source documents will give a glimpse into their pain.

“We should never allow ourselves to forget," Moughan said.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.