When South Carolina Massacred Members of the Charleston Emanuel AME Church

Dylann Roof, who embraced white supremacy, killed nine church members Wednesday evening. In 1822, the white supremacist-controlled state of South Carolina killed 35.

Nearly two centuries before Dylann Roof, the state of South Carolina conducted its own massacre of Emanuel AME Church members.

Roof,  who embraced white supremacy, killed nine church members Wednesday evening. The white supremacist-controlled state of South Carolina killed 35.

The earlier massacre was in 1822, six years after the congregation was founded.

A freed slave named Denmark Vesey was accused of plotting a slave revolt. State prosecutors charged that Vesey, along with other organizers, had used evening sermons at Emanuel AME to organize congregation members to rebel against their white masters.

“He rendered himself perfectly familiar with all those parts of the Scriptures, which he thought he could pervert to his purpose; and would readily quote them, to prove that slavery was contrary to the laws of God; that slaves were bound to attempt their emancipation,” reads a contemporary account of Vesey’s prosecution.

Vesey’s alleged plot to spark a massive slave uprising was discovered and the church where he planned it was burned to the ground. Rev. Morris Brown, the church’s pastor, was forced to flee north to Philadelphia.

I went to the Library of Congress after this week’s shooting to review records of the investigation of Vesey’s prosecution. A book detailing the prosecution and the alleged slave revolt contains a page listing the 35 members of the congregation, including Vesey, who were put to death for their association with Vesey and the alleged plot.

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The news of Vesey’s alleged plot reverberated around the state and country. “Believing that ‘black religion’ had caused the uprising, South Carolina instituted a series of draconian measures against African American churches and communities, including a ban on services conducted without a white person present,” the Washington Post’s Sarah Kaplan recalled last week.

Contemporary news accounts in 1822 pointed to literacy as the problem. “Among the conspirators, the most daring and active was Monday, the slave of Mr. Gell. He could read and write with facility, and thus attained an extraordinary and dangerous influence over his fellows,” noted an account in the Daily National Intelligencer.

Though the church was rebuilt, the ban on black churches then forced it to close, with congregation members meeting only in secret even through Reconstruction. A new building did not go up until 1872 — only to fall during an earthquake in 1886. But the church rebuilt again, and survived the white supremacist paramilitaries of the “Red Shirts,” Jim Crow, and years of official and unofficial persecution. Indeed, it thrived and became a beacon for freedom.

“Throughout the twentieth century Emanuel AME remained a potent symbol for African Americans in Charleston. Martin Luther King’s 1962 speech at Emanuel was the start of a voter registration drive in South Carolina. Later, Coretta Scott King’s appearance at the church in 1969, as part of the Charleston Hospital Strike, galvanized African Americans who supported the creation of a public sector union at Charleston County Hospital Read,” noted South Carolina historian Robert Greene II.

(This post is from our blog: Unofficial Sources.)

Photo: Chip Somodevilla, Getty

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