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Hallowed Ground: “Mother Emanuel” is home to one of the oldest black congregations in the country

Posted 2/2/2014 12:17:00 PM

Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston is the oldest AME church in the South and is home to one of the oldest black congregations in the country.

The current building, in Gothic Revival style, was built after the 1886 Charleston earthquake. But the congregation goes back to 1791, when a group of freedmen and slaves organized religious services.

After a break with the Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal church in a burial ground dispute, black church members formed a new congregation in 1818 under the leadership of the Rev. Morris Brown. The church was affiliated with what was then known as the Free African Society and had about 1,400 members. Brown and other ministers of the church were jailed for violating local laws barring religious gatherings of blacks without white supervision.

The church and its founders were central figures in a planned slave rebellion in 1822. The rebellion was planned by Denmark Vesey, a former slave who had purchased his freedom from a slave trader in 1799 with the proceeds from a winning lottery ticket. Vesey was a successful carpenter and began organizing the rebellion in 1821. He also was one of the church’s founders, which led to an investigation of the church when the rebellion plan was uncovered. More than 300 people were arrested in the plot and 35 – including Vesey – were executed.

The church was burned and Brown left for Philadelphia, where he became the second bishop of the AME denomination. The church was eventually rebuilt, but the failed rebellion had rattled the white population and all-black churches were outlawed in 1834. The congregation met in secret until the end of the Civil War, when the church was formally reorganized and the name Emanual adopted.

The current building was completed in 1891 and has undergone only minor restoration since, making it one of the few historic churches that retains its original appearance inside.

The church is located at 110 Calhoun St. in historic downtown Charleston and is open to the public 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-4 p.m. Monday-Friday. Sunday worship begins at 9:30 a.m. Call (843) 722-2561 for information.