I was going to write an arid final summary post on Black Originalism to finish my guest stint here at the Lounge. But in light of the horrific act of racial terrorism at Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston and the window the country has had on the past and present of a remarkable institution and people of Mother Emanuel, I have decided to do two final entries recalling something from an earlier post and look at how Reconstruction history lives with, around, and in us.
I previously discussed the African-American convention in Charleston of November 1865, held at what was then the Mt. Zion Presbyterian church. I have been learning more about Mt. Zion the past few weeks and wanted to explore its connections to Emanuel A.M.E. and also the connections between the ideas from the Charleston Convention and what they might say to us after this month’s tragedy. In this post I will focus on the Reconstruction history of the two A.M.E. churches and in my final entry I will consider the convention and what it might say to us.
Mt. Zion Presbyterian was run by (relatively) moderate whites as a mission church with a pre-war emphasis on ministering to enslaved African-Americans. A primary motivation at antebellum white-run churches that had black members was to monitor and control black communities, but there seems to have also been a more respectful motivation at Mt. Zion, led by John Girardeau. Mt. Zion had built a congregation of over 1000 by the time of the war and was the largest church building in Charleston. Also during this time the A.M.E. congregation was meeting underground.
I do not know whether the attendees and members of the underground A.M.E. church and Mt. Zion overlapped before 1861, but upon Reconstruction the A.M.E. congregation adopted the name Emanuel and met openly at Mt. Zion while they built a new church of their own (designed by architect Richard Vesey, Denmark’s son). With the Emanuel and Mt. Zion memberships both using the Mt. Zion church in the late 1860s, Mt. Zion would have been an important center of black religious and civic life. And it was definitely the center for political life when it hosted the state’s Black Convention in 1865. Richard Cain—one of the political leaders of Reconstruction South Carolina and a congressman in the 1870s—was the first post-war pastor of the Emanuel congregation during its time at Mt. Zion.
By the 1880s the African-American congregation at Mt. Zion had dissipated and joined the A.M.E. church (and probably other black churches as well). No doubt this was due to the fact that the A.M.E. church was led and run by African-Americans both locally and nationally. Other white-run biracial churches were sharply segregated in seating and leadership, and even if Mt. Zion was less so it was not the same as the full freedom of a black church. Mt. Zion was also tied to a regional organization of southern Presbyterians that plainly embraced white supremacy and at the end of Reconstruction mandated segregation of all congregations, a move which Girardeau opposed. (There is an interesting case study here for students of the Woodward thesis.) In any event, in the 1880s Emanuel A.M.E. bought the Mt. Zion building and set up a second A.M.E. church, which is where the current Mt. Zion A.M.E. got its start. Thus both A.M.E. congregations share an important connection to the landmark convention from 1865. I will pick up there in a few days.
[Note: This reconstruction of the history of these churches is based on sources available on the web and on Bernard Powers excellent book, Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822-1885. I welcome insights and corrections from those who know more about it than I do.]