Archiving the Aftermath of a Tragedy: Preserving Expressions of Condolence and Humanity

by Georgette Mayo

Solidarity
Card: “Prisoners in Solidarity Are With … Mother Emanuel 9.” Photograph by author.

The horrific tragedy which took the lives of nine Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (Charleston, South Carolina) parishioners and adversely affected five witness survivors on June 17, 2015 shook the world. Individuals, families, organizations, members of all denominations, and even the incarcerated have reached out to the victims’ families, survivors, and congregants to express their sympathy. Tangible evidence is continuously sent in the form of cards, letters, flowers, posters, paintings, books, art work, quilts, and prayer shawls express an outpouring of love, concern, and sympathy.

Members of the Charleston Archives, Libraries, and Museums (better known as CALM), volunteered their time and archival skills to organize, relocate, and inventory the numerous gifts.    A Memorabilia Subcommittee was established to define a collection policy and processing procedures. CALM’s mission in part is to “preserve the history of the moment for the future, help tell the story to others and through the use of the collection, contribute to building a better, stronger, more united community.”

The first task was the maintenance of the temporary public-initiated memorial outside “Mother Emmanuel.”  CALM members worked on a daily rotation basis to remove gifts of stuffed animals, posters, candle, balloons, Sweetgrass roses, and fresh, and artificial flowers. Days of torrential rain with flooding presented constant challenges in retrieving and preserving items, many of which sustained damage.  The large shrine which spanned the length of the church was discontinued two months later due to upkeep and time constraints.

Love Letter
Quilt: “A Love Letter from Dallas to Charleston.” Photograph by author.

The second ongoing task was to sort and catalog the countless cards, letters, emails, textiles, and artwork sent in the mail. The City of Charleston provided two rooms at the Saint Julian Devine Community Center, an after-school children’s facility, for provisional storage of the donations. One room, holding cards and letters, along with 400 shawls and quilts, comprised 1,000 feet of space.  Artwork and large memorabilia were contained in the second room.  Prior to inventorying, CALM members researched various collection policies and best practices of sites of massive tragedy, including Sandy Hook Elementary and the Boston Marathon bombing.

Our volunteerism commenced in the evenings after our daily archival positions.  We divided duties with one group processing the correspondence and another working with the shawls and quilts. The abundance of prayer shawls received was mostly made by church “Shawl Ministries.” We indicated the measurements of the piece, fiber content (wool blend or acrylic), design type (knit or crochet), and donor name, if indicated.  The article was photographed and the information was saved on a computer database.  Cards and letters were individually noted on the database with sender and date. The final step was packaging items in archival acid free boxes and labeling for long term storage. When the donations outgrew the Center, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charleston donated temporary space for the expanded holdings. Considering the future, the Mother Emanuel desires a permanent location with a professional archivist to maintain their collection. Naturally, adequate and ongoing funding will be needed for the Church to fulfill its goals.

Mother Emanuel commemorated the first anniversary in 2016 by displaying a small temporary exhibit of prayer quilts in a City of Charleston building located close to the Church. This year, the Church, with the assistance of Brockington and Associates, a cultural resources consulting firm, installed “The Light of Hope,” an expanded exhibition incorporating memorabilia and various portraits of the Emanuel Nine.

Lessons learned:  It is crucial to understand and provide the family members, parishioners, and members of the clergy time and space to decide how and when they want to handle their donations. In times of grief, it is challenging to make decisions, much less rational ones. If anything, we realized the virtue of patience and sensitivity.

While CALM members organized and inventoried the initial massive amount of Mother Emanuel’s donations with the goal to preserve history, it is ultimately the Church’s decision to do as they want with the materials.   The Avery Research Center, along with numerous and vested repositories in and around Charleston are capturing images and documents from the days, months, and years that followed this tragedy.  One example is the online digital exhibit: “A Tribute to the Mother Emanuel Church,” which highlights the outpouring of expressions of condolences locally and worldwide.

The Emanuel Nine:  DePayne Middleton Doctor, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons Sr., Sharonda Coleman Singleton and Myra Thompson.


Georgette Mayo is currently the Processing Archivist for the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. She received her BA in African American Studies (Phi Beta Kappa) and master’s degrees in Library Science and Public History, with a concentration in Archival Management from the University of South Carolina.