Emanuel African Methodist Church stands directly behind and across the parking lot from the hotel where my husband and I stayed in Charleston. On our first day, we drug ourselves down the sidewalk, tired and hungry from the cross country flight and peered into the front area where people had left flowers. We wondered why.
Later we would learn that this was the church where a white man shot nine people who had come to pray after they had invited him to join them in 2015.
I knew of this shooting but had not put it together that we were going there. And I certainly did not know we would be staying so close.
I’m not sorry. I learned so much from being in the place with the palmettos and breathing that air.
I learned that Emanuel AME, or Mother Emanuel, is the oldest African American church south of Baltimore and that it has been burned to the ground because its members sometimes violently sought their freedom before the Civil War. Amazing people like Booker T. Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr. later came to visit and advocate for human rights there.
Out the other side of the hotel, we walked across a park with a towering statue of John C. Calhoun, a Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Calhoun fought repeated political battles to maintain slavery and led the succession movement before the war.
It’s hard to overstate how tall this statue is. Calhoun rises as high as the church spires in the Holy City, as they call it, and I could not see his face from the ground. The carriage tour guide said many called for it to come down after the 2015 shooting. Not everyone agreed, so the city is planning to add ‘context,’ she said with the air quotes. And now no one can agree on the context so nothing has been done for 4 years.
I learned that one in four African Americans can trace their ancestors’ forced entry into the United States through the Charleston harbor, including Michelle Obama.
Of course, I learned many other things about this stunning place that were much easier on my heart.
- The architecture is gorgeous.
- The people are friendly, use that lovely plural ‘y’all,’ and mostly don’t have much of a drawl where I was.
- The Citadel students look crazy young (I guess because I no longer am) and must wear their uniforms everywhere they go.
- Sweetgrass baskets are incredible and help those who kept the tradition from West Africa to practice an ancient art that ties into the rice cultivation of the both Africa and the South Carolina Lowcountry.
- Freshly made pralines are simply divine.
- And, it would seem, Sue Monk Kidd has done much to increase the knowledge of the Grimke sisters, two Charlestonian women from the antebellum era who became abolitionists and women’s rights advocates. If you haven’t read her historical fiction The Invention of Wings, I recommend it.
- My husband is the best traveling companion ever with a love of history and a way of talking to strangers that I adore even though sometimes I shush him. (Okay, I already knew that.)
For many years I was not able to travel. I’m so grateful that we could go on this bucket list trip. There is nothing like being in a place to find context and feel the full impact of what has happened in history and what continues to happen now.