CHARLESTON, SOUTH CAROLINA - Five months after nine black parishioners were gunned down at a Charleston church, volunteers continue the laborious job of sorting and cataloging thousands of letters, mementos and gifts that poured in after the tragedy.
For weeks following the June 17 shootings, the sidewalk in front of Emanuel AME Church was a shrine with flowers, cards, balloons and candles. Additional cards, letters and other gifts flooded in through the mail.
Since then a small group of archivists working for free has helped the church sort through piles of material that includes everything from paintings on canvas to designs on plywood, painted rocks and crosses of palmetto fronds.
"These are gifts and we treat gifts differently than other things,'' said Karen Chandler the director of the College of Charleston Arts Management Department. "Obviously perishable things are thrown away but the other things, what do you do with them?''
The college on Wednesday night brought together the archivists to provide some insight.
A Sea of Tears
The items fill two rooms of about 200 square feet total. The letters would make a pile about 1,000 feet high and about 400 shawls and quilts are among the gifts. The material is now at a community center a few blocks from the church. The archivists hope to find a bigger space so other volunteers can help with cataloging, a job that will extend into the foreseeable future.
Following the tragedy, flowers appeared in front of the church and city workers removed them when they faded. But volunteers each day collected and saved the other items, such as cards and letters, so they would not be ruined by Charleston rains. A computer database is being compiled listing each item and, if possible, who donated it.
Sharing with the World
The college's Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture is putting together an Internet presentation that will show some of the items as well as material about how Charleston responded to the shootings. Other material is one day expected to be made available for researchers.
A Permanent Legacy
The church hopes to create a memorial to the victims and a permanent museum at the church. But church historian Elizabeth Alston said it's still early and people are still healing.
"Today is the 147th day'' since the shootings, she reminded the group.