Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
“You have to go,” the alleged killer reportedly said to black church members. That’s not the first time they’ve heard that.
The area in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, where 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof allegedly killed nine people has been a target of racial upheaval for a long while. The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church where the killings occurred is one of the oldest black churches in America, formed in 1816 by African Americans who left the segregated white Methodist church over a dispute about burial grounds.
The alleged shooter reportedly said, “I have to do it, … you’re taking over our country. And you have to go,” moments before the shooting, which claimed the life of Emanuel AME pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was also a state senator. The tragic irony is that African Americans in that area could make the case that a takeover is happening to them in Charleston. And it’s unfortunately not the first time that they’ve heard this message.
”This place that people come to visit was built on the backs of enslaved African Americans, but we’re increasingly seeing the black population here disappear,” says Patricia Williams Lessane, director of the College of Charleston’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, in an interview with Citylab.
Charleston has been spotlighted as the number one “Top U.S. City” destination by Conde Nast Traveler for four years straight. The city has been working to maintain such designations, particularly through consistent improvement of its housing and tourism industries, taking advantage of historical celebrations such as the 150th anniversary of the Civil War this year and the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, approaching next year.
Meanwhile, says Lessane, “African Americans are getting pushed off [Charleston’s downtown] peninsula due to gentrification and rising taxes that have made it prohibitive to keep properties here.
”The fact that this tragic incident happened at one of the the remaining vestiges of black history, a place that signifies black liberation and agency, makes it even more heartbreaking and plays into the larger narrative that black lives aren’t valued,” Lessane continues.
As Citylab reported on June 1, downtown residents—black and white—have been struggling with the National Park Service (NPS), the state, the city, and with private developers who plan to build luxury homes in a park area that has been central to civil rights history. These residents are concerned that the conversion of DeReef Park, a 10-minute walk from Emanuel AME, into a housing development would not only deplete their green spaces but would also diminish the historical significance of African-American churches and landmarks throughout the area.
A letter from the residents’ association Friends of DeReef Park to the NPS just two days ago lays bare what this means:
NPS has established African-American ethnic heritage as a significant historic theme that would compromise an Area of Significance eligible for National Register listing. NPS in fact has recognized the importance of the area surrounding DeReef Park as a “historically significant, Civil Rights era, African-American neighborhood” and has noted the environmental justice implications that the undertaking might have. The South Carolina Historic Preservation Office has also recognized the importance of African American related historic contexts. There are currently a number of African-American-related historic contexts acknowledged by the South Carolina Historic Preservation Office through NPS Multiple Property Documentation Forms; however a survey of post-Civil War to mid-20th century Civil-Rights-era historic and architectural resources in Charleston is not one of them. Therefore NPS must complete an intensive survey of those properties surrounding DeReef Park that have not been thoroughly evaluated for National Register eligibility and assess impacts of the undertaking on those properties in regards to their associative value to the Old and Historic District and their importance within a “local historic context.”
The letter is the latest exhibit in a years-long legal battle that, at its root, is about the reckless way in which government officials at all levels have failed to recognize the value of what African Americans have brought to this area historically. That history includes enslaved Africans revolting against their enslavers, as heard in the story of Denmark Vesey, one of Emanuel AME’s founders. For the audacity of fighting to free black families from slavery, Vesey has been accused of exacting racial terror and was branded a “terrorist” by Charleston’s “Southern Avenger” commentator Jack Hunter in 2010.
But the history of racial terror against African Americans in this area extends back far longer than Vesey’s failed rebellion in 1822. And much of that terror involved violence against black churches. Emanuel AME itself was burned down in the early 19th century, as were many other black churches throughout the 20th century. As recently as 1996 there were a string of black church arsons by the Ku Klux Klan across the South, including in Charleston.
So while South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said in a press conference today that explaining to “kids how they can go to church and feel safe” is “not something we’d ever thought we’d have to deal with,” this is a conversation African Americans have had with their children for decades. In fact, African-American South Carolina congressman James Clyburn told a local news reporter right before that press conference that African Americans there, sadly, “expect things like this to happen.”
Clyburn said this while on his way to a prayer service held at noon today at Morris Brown AME church, which also holds a special place in history for Charleston’s African Americans. Morris Street AME was cited as one of a few places of worship in the Friends of DeReef Park’s letter to NPS that would be affected if private development plans moved forward. Here is some of that history, as detailed in the letter:
The Morris Brown AME Church, named after the pastor of the first AME congregation established in Charleston in 1818, is one of the first established and most prestigious AME churches in its district. The Church was one of the first African American churches in South Carolina to operate a Senior Citizen’s home, and in 1969 was the headquarters for the Revered Ralph D. Abernathy and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during a strike by the service workers of Charleston’s hospitals. The physical building was purchased from a Lutheran congregation in 1867 in order to provide services for a congregation of 2,000 members at the time.
Another church mentioned in the letter is Morris Street Baptist Church, not far from Morris AME, Emanuel AME, and DeReef Park:
On May 9, 1865, seventy-three African Americans organized the Morris Street Baptist Church, one of the first African American churches created in South Carolina following the Civil War. The original building, in use starting in the mid-19th century, was tragically destroyed by a fire in 1964. Five years later, the Church moved into their new building, making the current Morris Street Baptist Church building almost 50 years old. In 1990, the Church celebrated its 125th anniversary by publishing a complete history of the Church that serves as a permanent record of its Civil Rights era history. The South Carolina Senate recently commended the congregation for 150 years of service to the community.
Beyond worship centers, there’s also the nearby Francis P. Seignious House, home of The United Order of Tents, which is “the oldest and only Christian fraternal organization comprised of and operated solely by African-American women,” and also a site active in the Underground Railroad. The Cannon Street YMCA in the community is the “oldest continuously operating YMCA developed for African Americans,” built after the Civil War. In 1953, the Y provided space for the only African-American Little League baseball program in South Carolina.
Said historian Agustus Holt of one of the baseball teams in that league, “To understand the struggle of African Americans to gain their equality in the twentieth century, you have to understand the story of the Cannon Street Y All Stars. It’s not just a Charleston story, but it has national significance as well.”
Some historians have stated that the first public school for African Americans and an important black cemetery were in this area as well, though these remain unconfirmed because government agencies have poorly preserved and archived black landmarks here. Developers have been moving forward with housing plans in these areas based, in part, on a 2003 cultural-resource assessment that either didn’t acknowledge most of these landmarks or said there was no historical significance for the ones they did. NPS and state officials have all but rubber-stamped developers’ plans based on that finding, according to court documents.
But an independent review of that 2003 assessment, by archaeologist Michael Trinkley of the Chicora Foundation, found it inadequate. In his own letter to the NPS, dated April 15, Trinkley wrote that the assessment “fails to provide much in the way of land-use history,” and that “Had some additional work been done we might have more information on what went on at this location over the past 50-80 years.”
Trinkley says in an interview with CityLab that government officials insufficiently investigated the possible cemetery location, and that African-American burial grounds in general “tend to disappear more easily—some for cultural reasons, due to how African Americans marked their grave sites, and then also certainly some for racial issues, where black cemeteries are simply not thought to be as important.”
This echoes the moment in history that contextualizes last night’s shooting: It happened in a church, Emanuel AME, that was created by African Americans who split from the white Methodist church over burial-ground disputes. Today, such disputes are at the center of the battle between residents and people looking to quickly build scenic housing and attractions, all to stay at the top of tourism lists.
“I’m always distressed by rushed decision-making processes,” Trinkley says. “Most of the things we deal with as archaeologists have been around for several hundred years... It’s OK to postpone something for a sufficiently long enough period to make sure for certain that you aren’t doing something that won’t irreversibly damage a resource.”
Which leads us back to the reported words of Roof—which in many ways reflect the sentiments of neglectful government officials to black downtown Charleston residents: “You have to go.”