CHARLESTON, S.C. — In the heart of this southern city’s historic downtown, there has been in the last few days an almost surreal paradox playing out on the street.
There is no bigger news, no larger topic of discussion, than the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. And yet in so many ways, life has gone on.
On Saturday, tourists packed the Charleston City Market, shopping for Panama hats, ordering tarragon shrimp salads, and admiring the handiwork of the Gullah sweet-grass basket vendors.
At Husk, the acclaimed bastion of upscale, new southern cooking, reservations were hard to come by Friday night. The night before, a line of partygoers in their early 20s wrapped out the door at Mynt, a bar that sits practically in the shadow of Emanuel AME.
The business of Charleston is tourism, with more than 4 million visitors each year. Even some African-Americans here said there was no reason to suspend that business, even after one of the worst racist attacks in recent American history.
“You can’t let something like that stop your life,” said Michael Ellis, 54, a sweet-grass basketmaker who had come to the City Market every day to sell his delicate wares at his regular table. “It’s good to see all of the people out here. To stay home, that’s not going to help anybody.”
Ellis, 54, an African-American native of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, learned the art of basket weaving from his Gullah grandmother and mother. It is the region’s signature craft, the baskets a physical connection to the African roots that have defined this region for centuries, although, Ellis notes, many African-Americans over the years have moved out of the expensive historic downtown peninsula and into the outlying areas.
Ellis said he was sickened by the shooting, and by the fact that some South Carolina whites still harbored the racist sentiments that the suspected shooter — Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man — espoused half a century after the storied gains of the civil rights movement.
But still, he said, he came to work.
“I’m sure a lot of the people walking around here are concerned, that they’re thinking about it,” he said as a slow-moving river of tourists, most of them white, sauntered by in deck shoes and sandals on Saturday morning. “It’s like me — I’m here, but it’s still on my mind.”
Work will go on for Emanuel AME, too. The church will be open for Sunday services, said Elizabeth Alston, a church member, even though its head pastor, the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, and two assistant pastors were among the nine church members killed. On Saturday, streams of people stopped outside the church to take pictures, to pray or to drop off mementos.
Wednesday night’s massacre continues to weigh heavily on the minds and hearts of people here.
Ben Mack, for one, said he had mixed feelings as he arose Saturday morning to sell jams,
relishes and jellies at a stand at the weekly farmer’s market in Marion Square, just half a block from Emanuel.
“Of course I wanted to do something good and contribute and move on with my life,” said Mack, a 30-year-old lawyer who lives in Charleston. “At the same time, it’s concerning to think that it happened just right around the corner and that anything could happen.”
Mack had a sign in front of his stand saying that he was donating his commission for the day to Emanuel. A stand selling roti rolls, with fillings like organic chicken, kimchi and braised pork, wrote on a chalkboard beneath its menu that it was donating 10 percent of its proceeds to Emanuel.
At the Andrew Pinckney Inn, a few blocks from where Ellis was selling his wares, Matt Byrd, 40, and his wife Kay, 37, had packed their bags and were preparing to return to their home in New Orleans after a short vacation soaking up the city’s famous architecture and partaking in its thriving and innovative restaurant scene. (The name Pinckney is not uncommon in the Lowcountry, and is shared by both black and white families. The inn is named for a white man, a distant cousin of Thomas Pinckney, an 18th-century South Carolina statesman.)
The Byrds had been dining Wednesday evening at The Belmont, a hip restaurant with exposed brick walls and a pressed tin ceiling on trendy King Street, when someone at the bar mentioned the shooting. With rumors of a bomb threat circulating, they decided to take a cab back to their hotel. But other than that, they said, they were able to enjoy their vacation as planned.
“I don’t think we really dwelled on it,” Matt Byrd said. “I mean, we all thought it was a bad situation.”
Part of that, Kay Byrd said, had to do with the message of forgiveness that the members of Emanuel AME broadcast after the massacre, and with the peaceful response of Charleston’s locals.
“We heard the church members’ comments talking about peace and forgiveness,” she said. “You didn’t see the anger that I’m sure people feel. I think it says something about this place that they responded like that.” Kay Byrd said she figured that the response might not have been so peaceful if it had happened in another city.
Nonetheless, feelings of anger bubbled inside some city residents. On America Street on the East Side, the church killings have become part of frequent conversations about the gentrification of the historic black neighborhood, police harassment and unemployment.
Three black men, all in their 20s, who stood on the corner of America and South streets, said they were simply angry. One man, 22, shook his head at how relatives of the murder victims at the church said they had forgiven Roof.
“Legislation ain’t getting nowhere. You gotta fight back,” he said.
But at nearby Mary’s Sweet Shop, owner Joseph Watson, who was watching the continuous coverage of the shootings on a television that sat atop a refrigerator, said he was neither angry nor bitter. He said he hoped that the killings might provide more motivation to make improvements for the black community, which he said had suffered from a lack of funding for education and after-school programs and from racism that has always enveloped Charleston.
“You raise your children right, here on this street,” said Watson, 65. “Put them through college. They get graduate degrees. They come back. They can’t get jobs.”
He paused. And then he spoke of a different “they” — white people.
“They are not going to put us over them,” he said of some of Charleston’s white residents. “They are not going to let us teach their kids. We’re not going to be the boss over that white person.”
The shootings also were on the minds of the all-white clientele Saturday at Gene’s Haufbrau, a beloved 63-year-old watering hole in West Ashley, a neighborhood west of the Ashley River and a few miles from downtown.
Mike Conlin, 50, who moved to Charleston from New Jersey four years ago, was sitting in a booth having a burger and a beer. He said he had begun carrying a firearm since the Wednesday night killings, in case things turned ugly between the races here.
“Being from where we’re from, I always think about retaliation,” said Conlin, who works as an airline mechanic at Boeing, one of the region’s largest employers. “You know, when one ethnic group retaliates against another ethnic group. In New York, there’s always retaliation.”
But Conlin said he admired the response of the victims’ families, who forgave the attacker.
At the bar, a newly engaged couple, Darcy Nelson, 43, and Lee Powell, 33, both Lowcountry natives, spoke with feeling about the intense pride they felt in their city’s peaceful response to the massacre thus far, and the intensified spirit of neighborliness that seems to have pervaded the place. Powell said his mother had hugged a black gas station attendant Thursday morning.
“It’s hard to be more polite than we already are, but we are taking the extra time,” he said. “We were all attacked.”
The couple said they were involved in organizing an event set for dusk on Sunday in which thousands are expected to span the Ravenel Bridge, holding hands in a sign of peace.
“The response of the victims’ families was impactful,” said Powell, a general contractor. Their loving response, he said, neutralized the hateful message behind the attacks. “It took his power away, and strengthened the community as a whole, and allowed us to say, ‘This is something we are not.’”