On the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old baby-faced white supremacist, walked into a prayer group at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. After sitting quietly for nearly an hour, he stood up, pulled out a handgun and murdered nine parishioners.
Two years later, the church announced plans to construct a memorial to honor those who died. “This memorial on the grounds of the church will help keep the memory of the Emanuel 9 alive and honor the resilience of the families, survivors and church members,” declared pastor Rev. Eric Manning. Over the next three years, church members and residents struggled with the question: How do you create a memorial that educates the public while healing the pain of the survivors and their families?
Church parishioners were not the first to struggle with that question. Since the 1960s, the United States has experienced a groundswell of public memorializing rivaled only by the period following the Civil War. This new culture of commemoration has been defined by a steady trend toward democratization of memory. Many modern memorials often honor individuals, not great leaders. They serve as a place where survivors and families can find healing by acknowledging the awful wrong that was committed, allowing memory to play a part in the healing. At the same time, these memorials offer moral education to those who visit, building an emotional bond that speaks to strangers in the inaudible dialect of the heart.
Honoring Not Just the Leaders
The trend toward democratization of memory began with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. Although it sits in the immediate orbit of memorials to great men—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln—architect Maya Lin chose a minimalist design that honors the rank-and-file soldiers killed in the conflict by chiseling their names into the polished black granite of the memorial’s wall. It was the first time in American history that a monument listed all those who died. The memorial honors the war dead, but not the war. The names are listed by date of death, not by rank.
Lin’s approach became a model for many future memorials. In the 1990s, gay-rights activists took a similar approach when they created the AIDS Quilt, which consists of 46,000 individually designed panels that paid tribute to those who died during the epidemic. The Oklahoma City National Memorial, built to honor those who died in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, consists of bronze-and-glass chairs in a field representing each of the 168 people who died. The smaller chairs are for the children who perished in the blast.
Elements of the new democratic style can also be found in the National September 11 Memorial, designed by Israeli architect Michael Arad and landscape architect Peter Walker. Their design consisted of two large pools with the largest man-made waterfalls in the United States covering the original footprint of the World Trade Center. Like Maya Lin, Arad made those who died central to his design, inscribing their names into the 152 bronze panels edging the giant memorial reflecting pools. The names are organized based on “meaningful adjacencies,” so they are listed near people with whom they worked and likely died.
Facilitating Emotional Connection
It was not surprising that Emanuel AME church leaders turned to 9/11 architect Michael Arad to design their new memorial. Arad believes the main purpose of the Charleston memorial, and others that he has built, is to serve as “a catalyst for some emotional connection.” But he is careful not to script what people are supposed to feel. “People come to memorials with different reasons,” he said. “No one is to say that a memorial should soothe or agitate.”
In terms of scale, building a memorial for a small African-American church was very different from constructing one that honored thousands of people killed a tragedy that shook the nation. Conceptually, however, there were clear design similarities. “The one thing that they share is the desire to invite the public in and to create a public space to engage people who are visitors to the site,” he reflected. “The people who are involved in building the memorial, fundraising for it and programming it are people who knew the victims firsthand. Throughout the design process their voice was in my mind. But at the end of the day, the vast number of visitors are strangers.” The goal, he declared, was to reach out to people who were not directly connected and to give them “an opportunity to connect in some meaningful way.”
Arad was struck by how quickly the congregation forgave the man who murdered their fellow parishioners. “That act of grace and belief is deeply rooted in the history of the church.” He reflected. “The memorial had to find a way of conveying that.”
The first challenge was to create a space for a memorial. The church, which sits on a street named after pro-slavery statesman John C. Calhoun, was surrounded by a large parking lot. “One of the first things we did was to rethink the entire church grounds,” Arad said. The goal was to keep the Church, which was founded in 1816, at the center of the memorial while refiguring the surrounding grounds. The new memorial surrounds the church on three sides with a wall and an entrance on Calhoun Street.
Arad then created two spaces on either side of the Church. On the east side stands a “Survivors’ Garden,” on the west the “Memorial Court.” Arad thought it was a meaningful act of fellowship that the congregation invited a stranger into its church, so he built two long, curved “fellowship benches” to recognize that act of generosity. In the center of the space is a fountain that overflows its rim over the names of the victims.
The two sides capture the different aspects of the memorial. The “Survivors’ Garden” is about the ongoing life of the church, while the Memorial Court is dedicated to memory and contemplation.
The Emanuel 9 Memorial was unveiled as part of the 200th-anniversary worship service at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Arad hopes that the memorial will become a pilgrimage site, like the Mall in Washington, D.C., Gettysburg and the 9/11 memorial. “It is a place,” he believes, “that will continue to have meaning over time.”
Steven M. Gillon, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, is the Scholar-in-Residence at HISTORY. He has authored numerous books on American history, including the recent Separate and Unequal: The Kerner Commission and the Unraveling of American Liberalism, (Basic, 2018)
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