Has America Forgotten About the Emanuel AME Church Survivors?

Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders, the only adult survivors of the Emanuel AME massacre, greet Brenda Nelson, who left the church for the night shortly before the fateful Bible study began. GRACE BEAHM/STAFF
Polly Sheppard and Felicia Sanders, the only adult survivors of the Emanuel AME massacre, greet Brenda Nelson, who left the church for the night shortly before the fateful Bible study began. GRACE BEAHM/STAFF

The blood splattered on her legs — that of her son, an elderly aunt, her pastors, nine people she loved — had dried. She still wore the same clothes, a black skirt and a black-and-white blouse, crusty now.

An endless night before, Felicia Sanders had left her blood-soaked shoes with the dead in the fellowship hall of her beloved lifelong church, Emanuel AME.

Barefoot as the sun rose, she trudged up the steps to her home, the one where 26-year-old Tywanza Sanders’ bedroom waited silently, his recent college acceptance letter tacked onto a bulletin board beside his poetry. It was after 6 a.m., and she hadn’t slept. She hadn’t eaten, not since going to Emanuel AME’s elevator committee meeting the evening before, then its quarterly conference and then its weekly Wednesday Bible study. There, 12 people met in God’s midst. Nine of them died, 77 bullets in their midst.

Felicia had answered questions all night from myriad authorities determined to find the killer. Now her phone rang. Her doorbell rang. Reporters, friends, family, strangers, an endless blare through the jangle of her muddled thoughts. Finally, in a delirious rage, she called an old friend, attorney Andy Savage.

“Andy, it’s too much!” she cried into the phone.

“I’ll be there.”

She hung up, walked upstairs and looked down at herself, at the blood of her youngest child crusted on her body.

“I didn’t want to take the clothes off,” she recalled, “because the clothes were the connection.”

The connection to Tywanza, to her aunt Susie Jackson, to them all.

She stepped into the shower. Watching her son’s blood swirl into the water and down the drain, Felicia sobbed. She kept the clothes, never washing them.

Sowing seeds
It was a larger group than normal that night: 12.

Perhaps no number carries more biblical weight.

Christ called 12 men to follow him. Israel had 12 tribes.

It is considered a perfect biblical number.

On most Wednesday nights, about half that number came to Bible study. But the night a young white man joined them to study the Parable of the Sower, 12 had gathered.

They lived or died after making the most mundane of daily choices.

Two regulars left early. Two occasional-comers stayed.

Polly Sheppard was one. Although her husband taught Bible study for 25 years, she wasn’t a Wednesday regular anymore. She hadn’t planned to stay that night either.

“I have diabetes, I’m hungry, I’m going home,” the 70-year-old told a friend.

Yet, she didn’t. She stayed to support Myra Thompson, ordained just that night and leading Bible study for the first time. For the last time.

Felicia, a 57-year-old hairstylist, went every Wednesday.

Her son Tywanza came, too. He’d leave work at a North Charleston restaurant, catch a bus downtown and join in. Often he arrived after the group started, even toward the end sometimes.

On June 17, he arrived on time.

Normally the Rev. DePayne Middleton Doctor’s four children joined her, as well. But she was ordained at the quarterly conference and had come straight from work.

When a slim man with a bowl haircut walked in and sat down, her children were away, safe.

Felicia’s sister had just dropped off her 11-year-old granddaughter. The child sat down, now one of the 12.

The white man’s presence was unusual at the historic black church. But he seemed benign enough that, an hour in, when he fired the first shots, Polly thought it was a flash of electrical wiring gone awry in the old building.

“Miss Polly, he’s shooting at us!” Felicia screamed at her longtime friend.

Polly dove beneath a table.

Felicia grabbed her granddaughter and clutched the child’s face tightly against her chest, whispering: “Just play dead, play dead, play dead …”

“Granny, I’m so scared.”

“Don’t say nothing.”

Tywanza, beside her, was wounded.

“Be quiet,” Felicia begged him. “Just lay, just lay, just lay.”

But Tywanza didn’t just lay.

When the gunman targeted his 87-year-old aunt, Tywanza tried to protect her.

“Why are you doing this?” he said.

“Y’all raping all our white women and taking over the nation,” the shooter replied.

“You don’t have to do this,” Tywanza implored. “We mean you no harm.”

His last words.

“I have to do this. I have to finish my mission,” the killer said.

With each gunshot, as Tywanza’s blood flowed onto her, one word streamed through Felicia’s mind as she held deathly still: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus …

The shooter stepped toward Polly and said, “I am going to let you live so you can tell the story of what happened.”

As he spoke, Felicia reached for a cellphone that had skidded within reach. Drenched in blood, it was too shot up to dial.

Polly watched the man try to fire more rounds — click, click — and then leave.

She heard sirens.

She heard a door close.

Then she scanned the bodies, the blood, the shell casings. Polly thought she was the only one alive. But she felt God in the room.

Then a voice. It was Felicia.

“Miss Polly, please help my son!”

“I was never more shocked,” Polly recalled. A retired nurse, she rushed over.

Police raced in too and ushered the living outside into the muggy darkness toward a nearby hotel. Felicia hurried out barefoot, still clutching her granddaughter’s face to her chest, shielding her.

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Source: Post and Courier | Jennifer Berry Hawes

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