South Carolina’s statewide investigative agency is looking into one of America’s oldest black churches after a former employee raised questions about donations to the victims of a racial terrorist attack.
On June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof walked into Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., and opened fire during a Bible study session, killing South Carolina State Senator and Senior Pastor Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Susie Jackson, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, and Daniel Simmons. After Roof was apprehended without injury, he received a generous, taxpayer-funded meal from Burger King and was eventually sentenced to death.
The church received an outpouring of support following the racist massacre. To be clear, the government didn’t step up its efforts to stop white supremacist extremism and white people still elected Donald Trump for president, but at least they sent checks, which is something.
A lot of those checks allegedly disappeared.
Althea Latham claims she lost her job as Emanuel’s church secretary after she raised concerns about the church’s handling of the donations, which totaled more than $3 million. Tommy Crosby, a spokesperson for South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), Latham and families of the victims of the shooting have confirmed that the church is under investigation for the handling of the church’s money.
The church reportedly split the donations between the victims but kept a majority for itself.
The Post and Courier reports:
In 2015, Latham said she witnessed people in the church open envelopes addressed to victims’ families and survivors of the massacre. Those survivors and families have previously told The Post and Courier that they received mail sent to the church but addressed to them that had already been opened, some of it marked “empty.”
Arthur Hurd, whose wife Cynthia died in the shooting, said he witnessed women in the church’s fellowship hall open envelopes addressed to victims’ families and remove cash and checks from them without keeping a log of money received.
Hurd later filed a lawsuit, but it looked only at the fund Emanuel created to house the donations. It did not look at the church’s broader finances. Attorney Mullins McLeod Jr., who filed the suit, said Thursday that he had heard from a SLED agent but not spoken to anyone yet.
Emanuel leaders have said the church received about $3.3 million in donations. They kept $1.8 million of that for the church and divided $1.5 million among the families of the nine victims, as well as survivor Polly Sheppard, who did not lose a family member in the massacre.
“I have no earthly idea what’s going on,” said Rev. Eric Manning, Emanuel’s current pastor. “That’s news to me.”
Manning, who was assigned as Emanuel’s pastor a year after most of the historic church’s ministerial staff was killed in the shooting, said he hasn’t spoken to SLED investigators. But Liz Alston, a longtime member of the church, told the Post and Courier that members haven’t received a proper accounting of the funds, noting that the church has also experienced a growth in membership and visitors since the shooting.
Known as “Mother Emanuel,” Emanuel Baptist Church was founded in 1817 and is the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South. In 1822, one of the church’s founders, Denmark Vesey, was convicted in a secret trial for planning a large-scale slave revolt. The church was burned down by a mob of angry whites. In 1831, after Nat Turner’s Virginia slave rebellion killed 51 white people, the city of Charleston outlawed black churches, forcing Mother Emanuel’s congregation to meet in secret until after the Civil War.
Felicia Sanders, whose son Tywanza Sanders was killed in front of her as she played dead with her 11-year-old grandson, still wonders what happened to the donations.
“Can a person rob God?” Emanuel AME’s highest official once said. “You indeed are robbing me, but you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and contributions! You are bound for judgment because you are robbing me—this whole nation is guilty.”
When contacted by The Root, Jesus wept.