The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the site of what authorities called a hate crime Wednesday night where nine people were shot dead, has for decades been a pillar of support during the black community's historic struggles in Charleston.
On Wednesday evening, three men and six women — members of a prayer group at the church — were killed allegedly by a white 21-year-old identified by police as Dylann Roof. The pastor of the church, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was one of the victims.
The church has a storied history in the social and political organization of slaves and free black people dating to the 1800s and played a key role in mobilizing the black community during the Civil Rights era. It was burned down after a failed 1822 slave rebellion and hosted a historic speech by Coretta Scott King on labor rights.
Emanuel African is the oldest AME church in the south, with one of the largest congregations south of Baltimore, Maryland. The denomination was officially founded in 1816 in Philadelphia by Richard Allen, a slave who was deeply devoted to Methodism. After white members of a Methodist Church tried to remove him during prayers, he established a church for the black community to worship free from discrimination.
The same year, Rev. Morris Brown, a free black preacher, became the first pastor of the AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, with a 1,400-strong congregation. Within two years of its founding, more than 75% of African American Methodists in Charleston left their denominations to join the congregation, according to the College of Charleston. In 1818, Brown and other church ministers were jailed for violating laws banning religious gatherings of slaves and free black people without white supervision.
In 1822, the church was investigated when a authorities cracked down on a planned slave revolt in Charleston. It was plotted by one of the church's members, Denmark Vesey — a freed slave — who was later hanged along with 34 other black people after word of the rebellion leaked.
In retaliation for the failed uprising, whites burned down the church and by 1834 all black churches were outlawed by the state legislature. The congregation met in secret until 1865 when they reorganized and adopted the name "Emanuel" meaning "God with us."
The church's large wooden design, designed by Vesey's son, Robert Vesey, was destroyed in an earthquake in 1886. A brick Gothic Revival style church was built in its place in 1891 and stands today as one of the most historically significant buildings in Charleston.
Emanuel is said to be the only black church building in Charleston that was designed, built, governed and maintain by black people. Other churches were either donated, bought, governed or built by white people for the black congregations, according to the book, A Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History.
The church was also central to civil rights activism in the 1960s.
Dr. Martin Luther King urged Charleston residents to vote at a meeting at the church in 1962. A year after his assassination, King's widow, Coretta Scott King, addressed a packed church fighting for the labor rights of black hospital workers.
"I feel that the black woman in our nation, the black working woman is perhaps the most discriminated against of all of the working women," she said. She led a rally of thousands from the church to the hospital, where they were confronted by bayonet-wielding national guardsmen.
During the Civil Rights era, black churches were increasingly targeted in bombings and burnings as part of racially-charged violence.
The trend resurged in the 1990s when several black churches in southern states, including South Carolina, were set on fire in what was believed to be a spree of racially-motivated hate crimes.
A Congressional hearing in May 1996 on church fires in the southeast, discussed the "disturbing development" of 21 African American churches being burned in 1996 alone. In South Carolina, the Mt. Zion AME Church was among the three black churches set on fire in 1995-1996.
President Obama praised the church and its history on Thursday.
"The fact that this took place in a black church obviously also raises questions about a dark part of our history," he said. "This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked. And we know that hatred across races and faiths pose a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals."