The history of this congregation reflects the development of religious institutions for African Americans in Charleston. Its roots stem from a religious group of free blacks and slaves organized in 1791. In 1816, black members of Charleston's Methodist Episcopal church withdrew over disputed burial ground, and under the leadership of Morris Brown, formed a separate congregation. The church's 1400 members soon thereafter established themselves an African Methodist Episcopal church, a denomination formally established in 1816 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Two years later, Brown and other ministers of the church were jailed for violating state and local laws which prohibited religious gatherings of slaves and free blacks independent of white supervision.
In 1822 the church was investigated for its involvement with a planned slave revolt. Denmark Vesey, one of the church's founders, organized a major slave uprising in Charleston. Vesey was raised in slavery in the Virgin Islands among newly imported Africans. He was the personal servant of slavetrader Captain Joseph Vesey, who settled in Charleston in 1783. Denmark remained with him until in 1799, when he was able to purchase his freedom with a winning lottery ticket worth $1500. He became a successful carpenter, especially among Charleston's majority black population. Beginning in December 1821, Vesey began to organize a slave rebellion, but authorities were informed of the plot before it could take place. Three hundred thirteen alleged participants were arrested, and 35 including Vesey were executed. The plot created mass hysteria throughout the Carolinas and the South. Brown, suspected but never convicted of knowledge of the plot, went north to Philadelphia where he eventually became the second bishop of the AME denomination.
During the Vesey controversy, the AME church was burned. Worship services continued after the church was rebuilt until 1834 when all-black churches were outlawed. The congregation subsequently met in secret until 1865 when it was formally reorganized, and the name Emanuel was adopted. Today, Emanuel AME Church is one of more than 1400 historically significant buildings within the Charleston Old and Historic District. - NPS