Established in 1816, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is the oldest AME church in the Deep South and a historic symbol of faith, community building, and resistance to slavery and racism.
Rev. Morris Brown, one of the first ordained pastors of the AME denomination and its second Bishop, organized Black members of Charleston’s Methodist Church to leave that denomination due to racial discrimination. The establishment of Mother Emanuel, then known as Hampstead Church, and two other AME churches changed the city’s social and religious landscapes. Within two years, more than three-quarters of Black Methodists in Charleston, roughly 4,000 people, had left their segregated churches to join the AME church due to its emphasis on education, racial uplift and self-determination.
After the Civil War, Robert Vesey, son of one of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, designed a wooden, two-story church at the present site to replace the original facility which had been burned. Christened “Emanuel,” meaning “God is with us,” the building was badly damaged by the August 31, 1886 earthquake. The existing Gothic Revival-style church, built in 1891, retains the original altar, communion rail, pews and light fixtures.
Emanuel’s legacy of social activism continued to grow throughout the 20th century as the church welcomed many local and national civil rights leaders, including Booker T. Washington, Septima P. Clark, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rev. I. DeQuincey Newman. Coretta Scott King and Andrew Young led Black nurses and hospital workers in a march from the church steps during a labor strike in 1969. As a state senator and pastor, the late Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney was a vocal advocate for the poor.
During his eulogy of Rev. Pinckney, President Barack Obama described Black churches as bunkers for foot soldiers in freedom struggles and “places where children are loved and fed and kept out of harm’s way, and told that they are beautiful and smart—and taught that they matter.” There is no better example of that than Mother Emanuel.