As a historian and archivist at Emanuel AME Church, Elizabeth Alston has the duty of preserving the rich heritage of one of the oldest African-American churches in the South. But following this summer’s tragic shooting that claimed the lives of nine of her fellow parishioners, Alston faced the heavy responsibility of recording one of the most traumatic moments in the church’s history, while mourning the loss of those close to her.
Recalling the night of the shooting, Alston said she was at home when she received a call from a colleague, saying, “They are shooting people at your church.”
Shaken from the news, Alston turned on her television to see exactly what was happening.
“There was a commentator talking about, ‘Yes, there is a shooting at the church, and Rev. Pinckney is there,’” she said. “I kept waiting for Rev. Pinckney to come out to calm the crowd. He never came.”
In the weeks following the shooting, gifts from all around the world poured in to Emanuel AME. Realizing that this incredible show of love and support needed to be preserved, Alston and a group of archivists from the Charleston Archives, Libraries, and Museums Council began to collect the growing collection of cards, letters, pieces of art, and other offerings received by the church. These donations are now being cataloged and digitized by a small group of volunteers dedicated to preserving the incredible show of support that came out of such a great tragedy.
The management of these gifts was the focus of a recent discussion hosted at the College of Charleston. The panel featured Alston, archivists Georgette Mayo, Virginia Ellison, and Celeste Wiley, and city records manager Meg Moughan.
“The challenge is what do you do with these cards, these letters, these posters that are sent from kindergartners on up to 90-year-olds just being left in front of the church. It’s a living, moving, shifting collection, and it sort of defies what we’ve all been trained to do,” said Moughan. “I think for all of us it’s been sort of an emotional learning process, first of all just to come and work with the materials, but also to figure out how to define it, to create a collection, while it’s not a collection. It’s growing every day.”
According to Alston, Mother Emanuel plans to secure space to exhibit the collection, and an online memorial is also in the works. The collection is currently housed at St. Julian Devine Community Center where volunteers and archivists are still sorting through the incredible amount of gifts received.
“I mean, the amount of materials is, I hate to say overwhelming because it’s all love, but it keeps growing,” said Ellison. “It’s all personal, too. From letters to artwork, painted rocks, someone thought about what they were doing and cared enough to do this and deliver it to the church, either by person or mail.”
Until the collection finds a permanent home, Alston says that she and her fellow church members continue to mourn the deaths of those who lost their lives in the shooting on June 17.
“Today’s the 147th day since that has been done,” Alston said during the panel discussion. “As you have listened to the archivists and the professionals, the church is still grieving, and I’m thinking 100 years from now, the church will have to make a decision based on the recommendation of the professionals. Certainly my goal, or the church’s goal, is to find a permanent museum at the church. That’s in the making as we speak.”