Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal: A storied church in a historic city

Updated 10:47 PM EDT, Thu June 18, 2015
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Story highlights

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church formed in 1816

It's 1,400 members left Charleston's Methodist Episcopal Church

(CNN) —  

The roots of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church run deep in Charleston and its history is one of perseverance in the face of racial hostility.

It was borne of discrimination, burned to the ground in hate, and rose again.

Now, a shooting in its basement – where nine of its African-American congregants were killed by a white gunman – is forcing it to once again confront the ugly virulence that blood-stained its past.

And once again, say members of the oldest AME church in the South, they will forge ahead and emerge stronger.

Pastor one of the shooting victims

In the beginning

The congregation first formed in 1791, a coalition of free blacks and slaves. At first they were members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal Church. But in 1816, they left their white counterparts in a dispute over burial grounds.

At the time, the church was 1,400 members strong. They rallied behind the leadership of a pastor named Morris Brown and organized under the banner of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Burned to the ground

The early years of the congregation were fraught with trials as Brown and other ministers of the church were jailed for violating laws that prohibited slaves and free blacks from gathering without white supervision.

In 1822, the church was burned to the ground, after plans for a slave revolt were exposed.

Denmark Vesey, a carpenter who brought himself out of slavery, was the architect. Since he was one of the founders of the congregation, authorities suspected the church was the meeting place for planning the rebellion.

The church was torched in retaliation. Authorities arrested 313 alleged participants, and executed 35, including Vesey.

Born again

The congregation rebuilt the church and met there until 1834 – when all-black churches were outlawed by the state legislature.

Undeterred, they continued to meet in secret until the end of the Civil War in 1865, when they formally reorganized.

They adopted the name ‘Emanuel,’ meaning “God with us.”

An earlier configuration of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church website
An earlier configuration of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church

At the time, the church was a wooden two-story structure, and it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1886.

Once again, it rebuilt.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, it was a destination stop for many of the leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, the church – with its historic Gothic Revival-style structure and signature steeple – is a fixture in Charleston. With seats for 2,500, it has the largest capacity of any African-American church in Charleston.

It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Leader of the flock

A dynamic church, Emanuel had at its helm an equally dynamic leader.

The Rev. Clementa Pinckney was among the nine people killed, according to CNN affiliate WCSC. The affiliate confirmed it through Elder James Johnson, the president of the Tri-County chapter of the civil rights organization, the National Action Network.

Pinckney began preaching at 13 and was appointed to his first church at 18.

In addition to being the senior pastor at Emanuel AME, Pinckney was also a state senator.

He was elected to the State Senate in 2000 at age 27, according to the church’s website. He made his statehouse debut four years earlier when he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Recently, he backed a bill to make body cameras mandatory for all police officers in South Carolina. The legislation was in response to the death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man killed by a police officer earlier this year.

“Body cameras help to record what happens. It may not be the golden ticket, the golden egg, the end-all-fix-all, but it helps to paint a picture of what happens during a police stop,” Pinckney said in April.

Who is the shooting suspect?