Local archivists preserve memories and materials for Mother Emanuel

CHARLESTON—History matters. Espe­cially in the Lowcountry and spe­cifically at Mother Emanuel, where people left thousands of letters, sweetgrass roses, crosses, pieces of art, Teddy bears, prayer shawls, quilts, and so much more to honor the slain and support the survivors of last year’s Bible study massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The fate of the memorabilia may be decided on May 5, just a few weeks ahead of the one-year anniversary of the shooting by Dylann Roof, 22, who remains in Charleston County Jail under numerous charges, including nine counts of murder and federal hate crimes.

“I believe this is divine interven­tion and we have to go through this with faith,” said Liz Alston, the his­torian at Emanuel AME Church.

Alston will lead discussions next week with representatives from the City of Charleston and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston to consider whether Mother Emanuel will accept an offer from the diocese to store the keepsakes inside the building that formerly housed the West Chancery on Ingram Road. Rain prompted people to pull items from the sidewalk into the church. Then, the collection was moved to a building nearby. However, there was no climate control so the collection was relocated to St. Julian Devine’s Community Center, but there is no room left to work with the materials.

Photos by Rhesa Versola/Miscellany: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston still receives gestures of support.
Photos by Rhesa Versola/Miscellany: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston still receives gestures of support.

Next week’s meeting could deter­mine how Mother Emanuel chooses to safely preserve history. The col­lection of 500 blankets, hundreds of stuffed animals, prayer squares, and handmade gifts continues to grow. The upcoming one-year anniversary will certainly yield more materials.

“It’s a grand idea,” said Alston of the diocese’s offer to house the collection in its spacious, air-con­ditioned building. “We are in the process of making a decision. We are almost there.”

Alston said the church is working with the City of Charleston to host activities beginning June 17 and last­ing for nine days in honor of each of the slain church members. Activities will include an ecumenical service and the planting of trees for each of the slain and survivors.

The grief and pain still haunts the 350-member church.

“Why? That’s a question so many ask,” Alston said. “The world has landed at our feet in more ways than one. The event of that one evening has ripple effects. Even a year is a small space of time in the eternal pro­cess. I keep a count. This is just the 315th day of the tragedy. Something happens every day to remind us.”

Alston reflects on how much more healing is needed within the church and the community. She worries about copycat crimes as June 17 approaches but she is ready to face whatever comes.

“I’m just one person in the church.” Alston said. “The Lord lets me get up every day and put one foot in front of the other. I am in no way tired. I am on the battlefield.”

Alston credits several local archi­vists for safeguarding the materials left in front of the church.

Melissa Bronheim is an associate archivist at the Diocese of Charles­ton, and a member of the Charleston Archives, Libraries, and Museums Council (CALM), a group of preser­vation organizations. She and other CALM members volunteer in the slow process of carefully measur­ing and describing every item in the collection.

“We want to be sure it’s done right,” Bronheim said about the preservation process.

Bronheim will join other CALM members to share what they are learning from their Mother Emanuel experience at the Society of Ameri­can Archivists’ annual conference in early August.

“It’s amazing how often this situ­ation is coming up now. After us, there was Paris. Those people are now going to look to us as we looked to Boston and they to Colorado. There are no words,” Bronheim said. “We reached out to the Smithsonian Institute. They were interested but they would move it out of Charleston. People want to keep it in Charleston.”

Meg Moughan, records manager for the City of Charleston, will also attend the upcoming archivists’ con­ference to be held in Atlanta.

“If it meant something to someone, they left it in front of the church. It piled up and overtook the sidewalk.” Moughan said, adding that she and other CALM volunteers would be available as long as Mother Emanuel needs them.

“It’s a wonderful gesture on the part of the diocese of reach­ing out in faith and support,” said Moughan. “Those thou­sands and thousands of letters in particular will be used by historians for years to come. People who have been through tragedy were reaching out to say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’”

Mother Emanuel is being considered for national historic landmark status. Additionally, the church has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The process is on-going.


By Rhesa Versola | The Catholic Miscellany