On June 17, 2015, nine people died in an attack inside Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church when a white supremacist terrorist opened fire during a prayer service. Now, the congregation has released plans to build a memorial by architect Michael Arad, who also designed the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan, on the grounds of the historic church.
Nestled into the exterior edge of the church’s grounds, the design is one part contemplative memorial and one part functional community space. On one side, a wide garden, framed by live oaks and benches, is both a tribute to survivors and a practical, living space for the church. Meanwhile, the centerpiece is a memorial courtyard sheltered by two sweeping marble benches and a fountain engraved with the names of the victims. Arad calls it “an echo of the church–it is an interpretation of what is already there.”
“Throughout its 200-year history, it has endured slavery, discrimination, and racism,” Arad says of the church, which was founded by slaves and free black people in the late 1700s, in a statement. Emanuel has continued to function as a pillar of the community even after it became the site of the racist massacre that took the lives of nine of its members, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Mrs. Cynthia Graham Hurd, Mrs. Susie J. Jackson, Mrs. Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. DePayne Vontrease Middleton, Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Mr. Tywanza Kibwe Diop Sanders, Rev. Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., and Mrs. Myra Singleton Quarles Thompson, AME Licentiate.
That meant Arad’s memorial needed to fit in with the everyday life of the community as well as provide space for remembrance. He met with family members of victims before beginning the design work, asking them about their experiences and also posing a specific question: “One of the questions I remembered him asking was, What do you want this memorial to do?” says church member Dr. Timothy Brown in a video about the design.
The consensus was that, along with paying tribute to the victims, the design should “also exemplify love over hate–forgiveness.” Indeed, after the shooting and during the attacker Dylan Roof’s trial in 2015, many family members of victims offered Roof their forgiveness. The Washington Post reported that congregation members gave emotional addresses to the domestic terrorist, with the daughter of victim Ethel Lance saying, “You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Forgiveness and resilience became themes, articulated in the courtyard space that shelters mourners and invites them to come together under the luminous marble curves of the benches. “The design reminds me of so many things. Sometimes it reminds me of a ship for enslaved people who are going to freedom. Sometimes the wings of angels,” says Dudley Gregorie, city councilman and church member, in the video. “Sometimes it just reminds me of the arms of God.”