Church of the Week: Emanuel AME Church
By Bill Segars
We mentioned a couple of weeks ago about venturing outside of Darlington County to learn about other church buildings. We did, and it was received very well. I did not plan on going back out again this quickly and certainly not for this reason. But, after what happened on Wednesday evening, June 17, 2015 at one of “my friends”, I suspended the article that I was preparing on a Darlington County church for this one, a historic pillar of South Carolina culture and religion. This is not the forum to discuss the most unfortunate events of that evening, but it does afford us the opportunity to learn more about Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and in doing so honor the memory of the nine Christians that lost their lives so unnecessarily on that night. In my small way, I would like for my ability to share with others what I’ve learned about this church and its history to honor those that were lost as we band together and move into the healing process.
Emanuel’s history goes back to 1791 when an organized group of free Negroes and slaves ban together under the name of “Free African Society” for the sole purpose of worshiping. It soon became a part of the Methodist religion, on the “Bethel Circuit”. They met in the Amherst and Hanover Streets area of the historic port city, where they owned a “field of graves”. In 1818 a dispute arose over this “field of graves” and The Rev Morris Brown pulled his congregation out of the Methodist faith and formed “Hampstead Free African Church” with about 1,000 members.
In 1816 Rev. Richard Allen formed a new church, which developed into a new denomination, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, consisting of free Negros and adopted the name of African Methodist Episcopal. It was with this group that Rev. Brown elected to join soon after Hampstead was formed in 1818. A parcel of land was acquired and a wood frame building was built as the first African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South. Two years later Rev. Brown and other members of the church were arrested and jailed for violating state and local laws, which prohibited religious gatherings of slaves and free blacks without white supervision.
Denmark Vesey is a name that is very much associated with the church that we know today as Emanuel AME. Vesey was raised in the Virgin Islands as the personal servant of the slave trader Captain Joseph Vesey. In attempt to make a new life for them, Captain Vesey settled in Charleston in 1783. Denmark remained with the captain until 1799 when he was able to purchase his freedom with his $1,500 winnings from a lottery ticket. With his freedom Denmark begin to establish himself as a successful carpenter, building many houses for other free blacks in the Charleston area. In December of 1821 Demark started organizing a slave rebellion and when authorities were informed of the plot, 313 alleged participants were arrested, with 35 included Denmark being executed. Rev. Brown, suspected but never convicted of being a part of the plot, was able to leave Charleston and became the second bishop of the AME denomination in Philadelphia.
With their leaders gone and their wooden church building burned, the congregation struggled to stay together. But together they stayed to build and worship in another building until 1834 when all all-black churches were outlawed. Even then this strong congregation continued to meet secretly until the end of the War Between the States in 1865. At that time the congregation reorganized as a new church under the official name of Emanuel AME, meaning “God with us”. Seven years later the group had acquired land on Boundary St., now know as Calhoun St., and built a nice wooden structure. They were off and running at their present location, not to be denied their right to worship again.
Even they were not to be stopped again, they were not without setbacks. On the evening of August 31, 1886, Charleston was hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, killing 60 people and demolishing many buildings in Charleston, including Emanuel’s wood frame house of worship. As all of Charleston reeled in the massive destruction of their city, Emanuel began to make plans to rebuild. In light of the fact that Emanuel lost so many church buildings previously, they learned that they needed to build a stronger and larger building this time; one that would last for a long time. Rev. L. Ruffin Nichols, pastor at the time, insisted the Emanuel plan for the future along with their present needs in a building.
As soon as the congregation could get their feet back on the ground after the earthquake they hired noted Charleston architect John Henry Devereux to design a suitable building for them. Construction began in 1890 and the massive Gothic Revival brick structure was completed in 1891 for a cost of $35,000. The present bell tower, with its octagonal copper cad steeple was added in 1903. The interior was up fitted with the present elegant pipe organ in 1908 at a cost of $800. As the congregation continued to grow in numbers and financially, a total renovation of the building was completed in 1951, under the leadership of Rev. Frank R. Veal.
This renovation was a detail renovation as the cost was $67,487, almost twice as much as the original building cost 58 years earlier.The interior marble panels were refinished and the interior was completely redecorated with the original 1891 pews and gas lamps being maintained. The most noticeable change was that entire exterior brickwork was stuccoed as it appears today. A seldom-noticed change is that the bodies of Rev. Nichols & his wife were exhumed and entombed at the base of the steeple so “they could be with Emanuel forever”.
With this work being completed, one would think the building would be set for generations to come; but, yet again, another setback arose. This one also experienced by all of Charleston, September 21-22, 1989. Most of you remember those dates, but for the few that may not, Hurricane Hugo. Need I say more? Emanuel was not destroyed, but it did cost $230,000 to repair it. Do you notice the increasing cost of each renovation or repair to the original $35,000 building? This exemplifies the congregation’s dedication to their heritage.
The benefits of these many trials are evident not just on Sunday as the congregation files into the 2,500 seat sanctuary for two services every Sunday, but the many contributions that this church has made to the “Holy City” over the years. Unfortunately tragedy again spawns the need for strength of faith as all faiths join together to pull this congregation through the tragedy of June 17 and to support the Emanuel name meaning “God with us”.
To learn more about this historic church, you may visit their website: emanuelamechurch.org.
Bill Segars has a strong love and appreciation for history, having grown up on a farm in Kelleytown on land that has been in the family since 1821 . He uses his 39-year building career to combine with his love of history to develop a passion for historical restoration. Segars was able to find, photograph and research more than 700 religious edifices throughout the state.