Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church represents a long history of African American worship and resistance in the heart of the Charleston peninsula. The congregation traces its existence to 1791, when freed and enslaved Blacks in Charleston formed a church called the Free African Society. The members of the church aligned themselves with the Methodists. Then known as the Hampstead Church, the congregation found themselves in a dispute with the larger Methodist organization over the white church leaders’ choice to erect a new building over an African burying ground. In 1818, the Black members of the church broke with the Methodists to form the Hampstead Free African Church.
Soon after the formation of the Hampstead Free African Church, the congregation became part of the newly formed African Methodist Episcopal organization. The new AME congregation was known as the Bethel Circuit, referencing the multiple churches under one pastoral call. Congregants continued to gather together despite Charleston’s ban on Black worship without white supervision. In 1820, Charleston police jailed Reverend Morris Brown and other members of the church for violating the ban on gathering.
The congregation received further white attention as the purported meeting place of Denmark Vesey, a former slave who purchased his own freedom and that of his fellow conspirators. In 1822, Charleston slave owners uncovered a plot by the city’s enslaved people to riot and overthrow their white enslavers. While the insurrection did not occur, Charleston’s leaders arrested over 300 Black conspirators and identified Vesey, one of the church’s founders, as the leader. The city executed Vesey along with 35 other free and enslaved Blacks. During the furor over the slave revolt, anonymous whites burned the Bethel Circuit church. Undeterred, the congregation rebuilt another structure for worship, and continued to gather in violation of local laws until 1834, when South Carolina forbade all-Black churches. Some members of the congregation attended white Presbyterian churches, while other members continued to meet in secret. At the end of the Civil War, the national AME church was quick to reorganize the old Bethel Circuit congregations. The congregation named itself Emanuel AME Church, and it acquired land just north of Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street) for its new church building. Robert Vesey, Denmark’s son, designed the structure,and Black laborers and “mechanics” built the church. By 1872, the congregation worshipped in their new wooden building.
In 1886, an earthquake rocked the Charleston peninsula, killing over 60 people and destroying Emanuel AME Church, among dozens of other buildings. Emanuel congregation chose to rebuild with a significant structure, and enlisted the help of local Charleston architect and builder John Henry Devereux. Devereux hailed originally from Ireland and was a plasterer and architect known for his Charleston churches. For the growing congregation, Devereux designed a substantial Gothic Revival brick building—the current Emanuel AME Church—which opened in 1891. The congregation added a bell tower and steeple in 1903 and a pipe organ in 1908. The interior of the church remains as designed in the 1890s, with its original altar, communion rail, wooden pews, and gas lighting fixtures. A balcony runs around three sides of the nave, and the church can seat up to 2,500 worshippers. Emanuel AME Church became known as “Mother” Emanuel as groups of congregants left the church to form Charleston’s other AME churches, Morris Brown AME in 1867 and Mount Zion AME in 1882. The church continued to serve as a beacon of Black religious life and civil rights, hosting such figures as Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King. Church pastors and congregants were often arrested for participation in marches and civil rights activities.
The church underwent a significant renovation in 1951, when the congregation chose to stucco the brick exterior, refinish the interior marble panels, and add murals and stained glass to the interior. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed Emanuel AME’s church steeple, which was replaced in 1990 with a steel-framed steeple capable of withstanding high winds. In 2013, Emanuel AME Church undertook work to improve its accessibility, adding an elevator tower to its southeast corner, adjacent to its main entrance. Losse F. Knight III of LFK Architects designed this addition. With work on it still underway, the church again entered headlines when a white man attended Bible study at the church and opened fire, killing nine church members in a declared hate crime. The shooter indicated he chose Emanuel AME Church based on its history of Black pride and resistance, and the congregation was again dealing with consequences of racial strife.
Emanuel AME Church continues to serve Charleston today, although its congregation is dwindling as members move off the Charleston peninsula for cheaper housing. The church is committed to maintaining the historic building in the face of its challenges and continuing to be a beacon of civil rights.
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