The more you read about Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, otherwise known as “Mother Emanuel,” the more awe you feel for its historic resilience amidst white-supremacist terror.
This church is now known as the scene of a massacre, which is being investigated as a “hate crime.” Nine are dead, but this institution will not fall. We know this because it has stood tall amidst the specter of racist violence for 200 years. Next year, in fact, was to be the 200th anniversary of the founding of the church. It was 1816 when the Rev. Morris Brown formed “Mother Emanuel” under the umbrella of the Free African Society of the AME Church. They were one of three area churches known as the Bethel Circuit. This means that a free church in the heart of the confederacy was formed and thrived 50 years before the start of the Civil War. It had a congregation of almost 2,000, roughly 15 percent of black people in what was, including the enslaved, the majority-black city of Charleston. Because the church opened its doors to the enslaved and free alike, services were often raided by police and private militias for violating laws about the hours when slaves could be out among “the public.” They were also raided for breaking laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read at Bible study sessions. (It was at one of these Bible study sessions that the shooter opened fire Wednesday night, after sitting among the people for over an hour.)
More violence against the church was to come, as one of its founders was Denmark Vesey. If you don’t know that name, then your US history class failed you. Vesey was born into bondage on St. Thomas Island where he was known as Telemaque. At age 32 in 1799, Vesey won a city lottery of $1,500 that allowed him to buy his freedom from slavery.
But he did not have the funds in this barbaric system to buy freedom for his wife and children. Under patriarchal master/slave law, this also meant that any future children they had would also be in bondage. This was not a state of affairs Vesey was willing to let stand. He looked at Charleston, this majority-black city amidst lush plantations, and planned an insurrection.
In 1822, Vesey was executed on charges of attempting to organize this unprecedented slave revolt. The plan—organized in meticulous fashion and involving thousands of adherents—was to sack the area plantations, liberate the slaves, and sail to Haiti, which had liberated itself from slavery 20 years earlier in its own revolution. The plan was audacious in its scope and remarkable in its reach, and as a result provoked mass hysteria throughout Dixie.
Vesey was one of five insurrection freedom fighters executed on July 2, 1822, two days before Independence Day. The proximity was said to have inspired Frederick Douglass’s speech delivered almost exactly 30 years later on July 5, 1852, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” where he thundered,