In the Holy City, it’s called “Mother Emanuel.” Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. Church has a long history in which its existence was threatened — or even banned outright. Every time, the church that was the scene of Wednesday’s mass shooting has survived and rebuilt.
“Emanuel is the oldest AME church in the South, and houses the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore,” says the National Park Service.
That congregation lost its pastor Wednesday, when Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator, was slain along with eight others.
Speaking about the church’s history in 2013, Pinckney said, “It’s a very special place, because this church, and this site, this area — has been tied to the history and life of African-Americans since about the early 1800s.”
From the start, those ties included the struggle for equal rights. The church’s founding was prompted by “civil disobedience, and a little issue of theological fairness, if you will,” Pinckney said in a video about his church.
After being formed in the first half of the 19th century as the Hampstead Church, Emanuel took its current name at the end of the Civil War. Last year, its congregation was estimated at 500.
Along with its religious role, Emanuel has served Charleston as a cultural center, drawing national speakers such as Booker T. Washington in 1909. It has also regularly hosted arts and musical events, participating in the MOJA Arts and Piccolo Spoleto festivals.
Here’s a look at the church’s rich history, drawn from its own website and other resources:
1816: Breaking away from a white Methodist Episcopal church, Rev. Morris Brown and others start the process of forming black churches in Charleston.
1818: The Hampstead Church opens at the corner of Reid and Hanover streets.
1822: One of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, is executed along with dozens of others for plotting a slave rebellion. In the aftermath, the church is burned.
1834: Following a ban on all-black churches, its congregation meets in secret.
1865: With the end of the Civil War, the church is formally reorganized under the name Emanuel.
1872: A wooden two-story church is built at the current site on Calhoun Street in what’s now downtown Charleston.
1886: The church building is devastated by an earthquake.
1891: The current church building was constructed, in a Gothic Revival style. It includes the original altar, communion rail and other elements.
1909: Booker T. Washington speaks at the church.
1951: The brick structure was restored and redecorated; stucco was applied to the facade.
1962: Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at the church.
2014: The church raises more than $250,000 to renovate its historical building.