We stood in front of Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, one of the oldest Black churches in America.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into a Wednesday evening Bible study. He sat with the clergy and congregants as they talked about their faith and when they closed their eyes to pray, he pulled out a handgun and killed nine people. He was welcomed into the community of faith and he violated that trust in the most horrific way.
A gold cross stood to the side of the church in memorial to those who were killed by an avowed white supremacist, nine white doves representing the nine lives taken. As we stood quietly near the cross, a crowd of middle schools students emptied out of vans and passed us on the sidewalk. All wearing jerseys, I guessed them to be a football team. A handful of coaches and mentors ushered them to the front of the church. All of them Black. Just the two of us white.
I wish I could have heard what was said, as I imagine these Black men tried to explain to their Black youth what had happened at that church in 2015. How do you put that into words? I wish I could have mourned with them. I wish I could have said anything at all that would have made a difference. But we were on sacred ground. It wasn’t our place to interrupt their pilgrimage and for this moment, grieving side by side was as close as we could get to grieving together.
Later in the week I would return to talk with Lee Bennett, the church historian for Mother Emanuel, who would put that tragic day in the context of a larger historic struggle for justice that the church has been a part of for centuries.
Lee connected the church to the work of Denmark Vesey, a man born into slavery who was able to purchase his own freedom after winning the Charleston lottery. Although he had money left over, he was not allowed to buy the freedom of his wife or children, a condition that haunted him as he grew increasingly frustrated with the injustices of slavery.
Vesey began to agitate. He planned an uprising for the summer of 1822, but when white authorities learned of it they hanged Vesey and 34 others. White mobs descended on the church that was Vesey’s sanctuary (the precursor to Mother Emanuel) and burned it to the ground.
There is a controversial statue honoring Vesey in nearby Hampton Park that was put up in 2014. Critics charged that it was glorifying a terrorist, that Vesey was nothing more than a criminal. It’s easy to find such comments on forums about the statue today. It’s easy to find such language in our headlines as well.
Fifty years before Vesey planned to take up arms to fight for the freedom of his people, the founders of our country did the same. They chaffed at the rules imposed upon them by another power. They took up arms to fight for their liberation and independence and history calls them freedom fighters, patriots and founding fathers.
Denmark Vesey did the same and was hanged as a terrorist.
How do we remember our history? Whose stories do we tell? And how do we connect that understanding to the headlines of today? The past was not that long ago and we have lessons to learn as events from our past continue to ripple into our present.
I’ll be sharing Lee Bennett’s interview on Saturday. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and learn with me.