“There is no greater coward,” Cornell William Brooks, president of the N.A.A.C.P, declared in a statement, “than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.”
This experience is unfortunately far from new: While black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African-American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts.
Further, the very spot of land on which the Emanuel Church is built has witnessed much of this sobering history. In the summer of 1822, white residents of Charleston discovered that one of their worst fears had come true: a slave conspiracy to rise against their masters and slaughter all white residents was afoot in the city. The accused ringleader, Denmark Vesey, was a former slave who had been a free carpenter in Charleston for two decades. His insurrection was supposedly planned to take place on July 14—Bastille Day. Once the plot was uncovered, however, authorities were swift with retaliation: 131 men were charged with conspiracy, 67 were convicted, and 35, including Vesey, were hanged. While historians today debate the extent of the conceived rebellion, the event proved formidable in confirming southern angst over an “internal enemy,” and white supremacists knew they had to respond quickly and violently.
That Vesey was one of the founders of the Emanuel Methodist Episcopal Church was no mere coincidence. To those who pushed prosecution, the church was central to the conspiracy. The year prior, city officials had closed the church because they feared it was breaking slave codes concerning unsupervised black gatherings after sunset and the law against teaching slaves to read. Charleston authorities depicted Vesey’s frustrations over their suppression of church activities as one of his three primary motivations. (The other two were the Haitian Revolution and the debates over the Missouri Compromise.) The punishment for these sins was the noose.
In the wake of the suppressed rebellion, Charleston lawyer Edwin Holland specifically blamed black churches. These preachers, he accused, carried “the Sacred Volume of God in one hand” while spreading ideas “of discord and destruction, and secretly disperse among our Negro Population, the seeds of discontent and sedition” with the other. The city decided the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which attracted nearly 2,000 congregants, was the problem. New draconian measures were instituted that banned religious services without a white person present. The AME Church, only built four years previously, was then burned to the ground even as the conspirators were hung from the sky.
Seven years later, the state constructed an arsenal just around the corner to house arms and ammunition. They wanted to be prepared the next time their black population conspired an insurrection. Soon, in an agreement with the War Department, this location transformed into the South Carolina Military Academy–also known as the Citadel. The crown jewel of southern militarism, then, was in part birthed as a way to protect whites from the type of racial threats the AME Church posed.
The Citadel's Army ROTC Palmetto Battalion
This was just another moment in a long history of white angst over black churches. When slavery was originally established in America, enslaved persons were not even allowed to be baptized because it was feared that such an action would grant them civilization and problematize their coerced labor. Owners eventually embraced a paternalistic interpretation of Christianity that brought blacks salvation, yet reinforced their current station in life.
But even then, their worship was to be governed by white authorities and their message was to be filtered through white leaders. Measures were taken to ensure these gatherings were places to ameliorate possible revolt, rather than foment it, and harsh retaliation was instituted when those borders were crossed. Even as the “invisible institution” became more visible through organization and brick and mortar, white society still tried to control its power. Thus even while the black church became a bastion of harmony and a reservoir for support for black participants, it also became a locus of dread for white observers.
This paradox has remained in place ever since. Black churches became a central recruitment point for soldiers and a prominent pedestal for emancipation messages during the Civil War, yet they were also frequently targeted by Confederate forces. They were primary locations for mobilization during the 1950s and 1960s civil rights movement—Martin Luther King Jr. even used the Emanuel Church in Charleston for meetings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference—but also venues for violent backlash, as seen with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Sadly, these attacks continue to appear in staggering numbers today. If one were to find a central crossing point for racial conflict in America, it would be hard not to choose a church.
In 2014, a monument to Denmark Vesey was raised in Charleston’s Hampton Park. It was meant to represent both a cooling in this racial conflict and a symbol that this violent past is indeed past. But tensions continue to simmer. The Confederate flag, a symbol of racial superiority, is still displayed in South Carolina’s capital. Police brutality is still inordinately directed toward African Americans throughout the nation. Today’s cultural circumstances still necessitate a reminder that black lives matter.
And churches remain very much at the center of these conflicts. Created, in part, to resist the racist oppression forced upon them, they represent the most potent threat to white supremacy. This is especially the case in Charleston, where the Emanuel Church is located in the heart of the historic district–a tourist area otherwise dedicated to preserving the memory of the Old South–and not sequestered away to a segregated black area of the city. Last night’s shooting once again demonstrates the contempt many whites have for black churches as they continue to serve as a symbol of black organizational power.
Just as the original Emanuel Church was torched in 1822 due to fears of racial unrest, its replacement has become yet another location for American racial warfare. History has demonstrated that a particular segment of white America has often responded to racial fears with violence, yet this particular plot of land in downtown Charleston has seen more than its fair share of that unfortunate tradition. More, it stands in for the pregnant and powerful role of black churches in America—physical embodiments of both the necessity of strong black communities, yet also their continuing threat to white society.
Benjamin E. Park received his PhD from the University of Cambridge. He currently teaches courses in American history at the University of Missouri, where he is a fellow with the Kinder Forum on Constitutional Democracy.