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Charleston grapples anew with slavery’s ingrained history

A crowd gathers outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church following a prayer vigil Friday.
A crowd gathers outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church following a prayer vigil Friday.(Brian Snyder/REUTERS)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — They are still hugging each other, whispering “I love you.” They are still saying silent prayers, trying to make sense of the madness that befell the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where nine people were murdered Wednesday while praying.

People are still dropping off flowers, adding to an expansive memorial that perfumes the hot, muggy, Southern summer. People are still angry, hurt, and asking why — what’s next?

This is a moment that is making Charleston, a city whose history still bears the brands of

Charleston residents gathered and sung together outside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Friday to honor the nine victims slain by alleged killer Dylann Roof.
Charleston residents gathered and sung together outside the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Friday to honor the nine victims slain by alleged killer Dylann Roof.(Richard Ellis/EPA)

segregation and slavery, confront the remnants of its past. This is a moment that is making the nation do that as well.

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“How do you address, basically, what was in this awful person’s heart?” Mayor Joseph P. Riley asked at a Friday news conference in front of the massive, nearly 200-year-old church. “I think for our country, a continued dialogue about race. We, in America, were never taught African-American history. It wasn’t in the history books. We don’t know the story.”

The death of these nine African-Americans allegedly at the hands of a white man reportedly bent on starting a race war, comes at a time when the country has been involved in conversations about race, class, and politics like no other since the 1960s civil rights movement. Those conversations will now include this latest shooting, one that took place in a city where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, but a city that has also sought to confront its racially divisive past and move ahead.

Riley said his city, considered by some to be the home of the Confederacy and the Civil War — a battle fought for states’ right to keep black people as slaves — has plans to build a museum dedicated to African-American history on the Charleston harbor, “on the site where . . . enslaved Africans were brought.”

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According to city officials, Charleston’s population is about 26 percent black — and 10 percent higher in the area where the church is located.

But around the church, streets are named for famous Confederate generals, and tourists visit plantations that aided its booming economy, bolstered in part by Charleston’s role, as defined by the city’s website, a “major slave collecting and reselling center” of the 19th century. Nearly 40 percent of enslaved Africans brought to the United States came through Charleston, where the ratio of slaves to white residents could be as high as 9 to 1 in the Lowcountry, according to the International African American Museum’s website.

And, flapping in the winds of the South Carolina state house two hours away in Columbia, is the Confederate flag. To some, it’s a tradition and a way to honor those who died during the Civil War. To others, it’s a symbol of terror, oppression, and the darkest chapter in our nation’s history.

“I wouldn’t have seen this coming,” Helen Venning said after hugging Shirley Gibson at the memorial in front of Emanuel AME, which sits on Calhoun Street and is cordoned off by police tape.

Cynthia Wright-Murphy (left) hugs her sister Carolyn Wright-Porcher outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Saturday.
Cynthia Wright-Murphy (left) hugs her sister Carolyn Wright-Porcher outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Saturday.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSK/AFP/Getty Images)

Venning is black, and Gibson is white. Both are lifelong residents who acknowledge this city hasn’t always been a place where the races embraced. But they say things have improved drastically.

“God wants Charleston to be a lighthouse,” Elliott Summey, chairman of the Charleston County Council said during a community prayer and healing vigil held Friday night at the College of Charleston. “We pray in the street. We comfort each other. We are all one family — neither race nor creed nor religion. We are one family in this community.”

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Mother Emanuel, as the church where the shootings took place is called, is as much a symbol of the city’s evolution toward equality as it is of the black rebellion against white supremacy that dates back to its founding in the early 19th century. Emanuel has been attacked — and rebuilt — numerous times since its inception by Denmark Vesey, a free black man executed in 1822 for his role in a failed revolt against slave masters.

From Emanuel came an outgrowth of hundreds of other African Methodist Episcopal Churches, which is why it referred to as “Mother Emanuel.” It is in many ways the denomination’s cathedral church in the southeastern United States, and it remains a place of activism to this day.

“It has a civic, social conscience, and that is what it’s known for in the Charleston community,” said its former pastor, the Rev. Stephen Singleton, who knew most of those who lost their lives in the sanctuary. “The congregation has always been involved in advocating even before slavery was abolished.”

A young girl left flowers at the memorial outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Friday.
A young girl left flowers at the memorial outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Friday.(Richard Ellis/EPA)

It was a place of education during the Reconstruction era. It was a staging ground for the hospital workers strike in 1968. It was a place of prayer vigils for President Obama because, Singleton said, “there were so many threats on his life.”

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Charleston City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, a trustee of Mother Emanuel, called what happened “racially motivated terrorism.”

Still, he said, Charleston has “evolved unbelievably over the last couple of hundred years.” And he sees his seat on the council as evidence of that evolution, saying he represents a majority white district and was voted into office with more than 60 percent of the vote.

“They voted for an African-American. They voted for the sons of the slave,” he said Friday in the blazing noonday sun. “But, I would be the last person to say to you that racism does not exist. It exists all over America, and this city is no different.”

Still, the Rev. Joseph Darby, presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church, and others in the black community, said some claims of the city’s togetherness might be a bit overstated. After all, several miles away in North Charleston, a cellphone camera showed a police officer killing an unarmed African-American man a couple months ago.

“Charleston practices what I call ‘raging politeness,’ ” he said sitting in the office of the local branch of the NAACP. “People love to paint a kumbaya picture. It ain’t kumbaya. Charleston will come together wonderfully for critical things like this, but after the crisis has passed people will go back into their silos. I hope that doesn’t happen this time.”
Mourners gathered at a Charleston vigil on Friday for victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting.
Mourners gathered at a Charleston vigil on Friday for victims of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting.(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
Photos of the victims of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church are held during a vigil at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.(Glynn A. Hill/AP)
People join hands during a prayer vigil at the TD Arena Friday in Charleston.
People join hands during a prayer vigil at the TD Arena Friday in Charleston. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.