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'Sheltering Wings:' Charleston Memorial Plan Conveys Solace

Designs for Memorial Court from Calhoun Street
Handel Architects
Handel Architects
Designs for Memorial Court from Calhoun Street


Designs for a memorial to nine black worshippers slain at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston began not at a drafting table, but with questions from grieving family members to prospective architects. They didn't want to see any drawings until they sat down with the eventual designer to discuss how best to honor loved ones lost in the racist attack.

The result of those conversations, the planners say, will be less of a solemn monument and more of a heavenly embrace to those visiting the historic Charleston church.

Church officials unveiled detailed plans Sunday afternoon for the permanent tribute designed by the architect behind the 9/11 Memorial in New York. The announcement, coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the church known as "Mother Emanuel," will be followed by a push to raise the money needed to build the memorial and prayer garden.

Church officials say the design conveys both solace and resiliency. A marble fountain with carvings of the victims' names will be flanked by curved stone benches that rise above visitors' heads and cradle the space "like sheltering wings," according to a news release.

"When you walk into the memorial, it's going to give you the feeling of being embraced, just embraced with warmth," said City Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, a church trustee who lost a loved one in the June 2015 attack.

The nine worshippers were shot during Bible study by a man who said he intended to kill people at the historic church to stoke racial tensions. He's been sentenced to death.

Left to Right: John Darby (co-chair of the memorial's executive committee), Rev. Eric SC Manning (Pastor of Emanuel AME Church), Michael Arad (memorial's architect with Handel Architects) in front of Emanuel AME Church.
Credit The Beach Company
The Beach Company
Left to Right: John Darby (co-chair of the memorial's executive committee), Rev. Eric SC Manning (Pastor of Emanuel AME Church), Michael Arad (memorial's architect with Handel Architects) in front of Emanuel AME Church.

  In honoring the victims, architect Michael Arad said the project also will pay homage to the church's history as a living community, not just a geographic location.

"At the heart of the design of the new memorial is the notion of congregation — of creating a place that fosters a sense of community that invites people in," Arad said in an interview.

The church, among the oldest black congregations in the South, has stood as a beacon for the past two centuries despite adversity. It was torched by whites in its early years after a failed slave revolt, and since then, it has been rebuilt or repaired after natural disasters.

Thus, Gregorie said, the memorial and prayer garden will also give visitors a "sense of resiliency and survival."

Discussions about a permanent tribute to the victims began in the months after the shooting, said local businessman John Darby, who helped set up a memorial fund for the church. Darby estimated it could take more than $15 million for construction and an endowment to maintain the memorial.

At the outset, prospective architects were asked not to submit designs but to answer written questions about their emotional reaction to the shootings, said Arad.

Arad, announced as architect in June 2017, began developing the designs through further conversations with the victims' loved ones, other congregants and a church committee.

"It was really about bringing things to the table and discussing them with the group and hearing responses and understanding what resonated," he said.

The design process was often intertwined with grief.

"There were days we just passed around a tissue box," Darby said.

Such moments helped to make sure that the design serves the families and wider congregation, Arad said.

"Unless you develop this firsthand knowledge and connection of who you're meant to serve in designing a memorial, you're not going to be able to develop the empathy required for the appropriate response," the architect said. "So, yes, as you can imagine it was difficult, but it's absolutely essential."

Audio Transcript: 

Detailed plans were unveiled Sunday for a permanent memorial to the victims and survivors of the massacre more than three years ago at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Nine black worshippers were killed in June, 2015 when a white gunman opened fire during a Wednesday evening meeting at the historic church known as “Mother Emanuel.”

Architect Michael Arad, who also designed the 9/11 Memorial in New York, unveiled plans for the Charleston project following a Sunday ceremony to celebrate Emanuel’s 200 years as an African Methodist Episcopal congregation.

The planned memorial was designed with input from family members of shooting victims. Located on the grounds of Emanuel AME, the memorial will feature a courtyard, benches, marble fountain, and the names of the nine people killed.

"When you walk into the memorial, it's going to give you the feeling of being embraced, just embraced with warmth," said Charleston City Councilman Dudley Gregorie, who lost a loved one in the massacre.

The design also includes a survivor’s garden, dedicated to the five victims who survived the shootings and to the resiliency of Emanuel AME, which is one of the oldest black churches in the South. It was rebuilt after being torched and burned to the ground in 1822 after plans for a slave revolt were revealed.

Emanuel AME pastor Eric Manning said the memorial will honor the Emanuel Nine, and celebrate the "grace in forgiveness" shown by victims' family members and the "spirit of resiliency" that emerged following the shootings. "Ultimately, it will inspired people and communities everywhere to rise above racism and overcome hate with love," Rev. Manning added.

The next step in creating the memorial is a major fundraising effort. Charleston businessman John Darby is helping to lead that effort and says it could cost more than $15 million to build the memorial and create an endowment to maintain it.

This article was written by the Associated Press. The audio and the transcript are by WFAE reporter Mark Rumsey.

The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.