Years ago, members of Emanuel AME Church gathered for a traditional Gullah/Geechee libation ceremony to honor the dead who came before them.
According to Queen Quet Marquetta Goodwine, head of state of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, many members of Emanuel AME are Gullah/Geechee, including some of the nine shooting victims who died in a terrorist attack by a lone gunman last Wednesday night. The Gullah/Geechee people group consists of the descendants of enslaved African-Americans living along the coast from Cape Fear, N.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., and has deep roots in Charleston, a port of entry for slave ships.
Many expressions of Gullah/Geechee culture can be seen in Charleston and on the nearby Sea Islands today, from the West African-infused creole language still spoken by some Charlestonians to the intricately woven sweetgrass baskets for sale in the City Market. Gullah culture has also impacted Charleston’s cuisine and lent a few songs to the American folk tradition including “Kum Ba Yah” (Gullah for “Come By Here”). According to Goodwine, the culture’s traditions are especially strong at Emanuel AME — or Mother Emanuel, as the church is often affectionately called by AME congregations in South Carolina.
Goodwine participated in the libation ceremony at Emanuel AME and remembers it well. Inside the church’s front archway, they poured out water to honor God and their ancestors.
“That ceremony is a traditional African ceremony, and you can still see it done in various parts, especially West Africa,” Goodwine says. “Before you enter into anything you’re going to do, you give honor to God and give honor to the ancestors.”
For longsuffering Mother Emanuel, the shooting was another chapter in a long history of racial violence and persecution. The church was originally formed by both free and enslaved blacks, and it left the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816 following a dispute regarding burial grounds to join the then-newly formed African Methodist Episcopal denomination. The church was burned to the ground in 1822 after the arrest of Denmark Vesey for planning a slave revolt. Vesey, a class leader at the church, was hanged along with 36 co-conspirators.
After rebuilding, the church was forced to close its doors in 1834 due to a law prohibiting African Americans from worshiping without white oversight. The congregation met secretly throughout the Civil War, finally returning to its building in 1872. The church building was severely damaged in the earthquake of 1886 and was rebuilt in its current form in 1891.
The church continued to be active in the 20th century. Booker T. Washington spoke at Emanuel AME in 1909, Martin Luther King Jr. in 1962. Coretta Scott King led a march in 1969 in support of disenfranchised hospital workers, and it started on the steps of Emanuel AME. Today, political candidates often pay a visit to Emanuel AME while on the campaign trail.
Goodwine lives on St. Helena Island but has spoken and sung and worshipped in Emanuel AME many times. She was a friend of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a state senator, who grew up near her in Ridgeland. “Mother Emanuel has embraced me as a mother for many, many years on my journeys to Charleston,” Goodwine says.
In the days since the shooting, Goodwine says she has been unable to shake visions of the church’s red carpet and the blood that was spilled on it. “It will be difficult for me to re-enter those doors,” she says.
Another Gullah/Geechee leader, Elder Carlie Towne, spent the days after the shooting capturing the aftermath on camera for AC Fun Time, a cable-access show on Comcast C2. On Friday afternoon, she was still shaken by the news.
“What happens is that at first you feel like you’re OK, you’re doing fine, and then all of a sudden when you start thinking about it, it’s devastating,” Towne says.
Towne attended weddings at Emanuel AME and describes the church as “a pillar in the Gullah/Geechee community.” In true Gullah/Geechee form, she says, the congregation often sang and prayed while holding hands in a circle, a symbol of unity.
“We always do things in circles because we believe that everything is connected,” Towne says. “We believe everything is connected so that everything that goes around comes around at the end.”
After a while, once the last of the cable TV satellite trucks have rolled out of town, Goodwine plans to return to Charleston and hold another libation ceremony at Emanuel AME, this time for the nine people who died on June 17.
“There have been numerous occasions of brutality and even burning down of the church that have happened at that site, and so [this is] to rest those spirits and to honor those spirits for the vision they had, to even have this type of institution there, and to hold it up in the face of all that was against it,” she says.
While returning will be emotionally difficult, Goodwine says she does not fear for her safety.
“My security is always in God, and so this does not prevent me — and it doesn’t prevent most Gullah/Geechees I’ve spoken to — from feeling that they would go into a church again or that they would gather together again,” she says. “There are a number of us that have not lost our faith in God, and our faith has not been shaken.”