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Charleston shooting: What is the historical significance of the church?

WATCH ABOVE: 9 people have been killed after a man opened fire at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Nine people were killed Wednesday at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina in what officials are investigating as a hate crime.

The church is one of the oldest in the southern United States, with a long history of perseverance in the face of racism.

“We call it the holy city, all the church spires that reach up to the sky, including mother Emanuel AME church where this horrific crime occurred last night,” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said during a Thursday morning press conference.

“AME church and the African American churches are very important religious as well as social pieces of the fabric of society here for a few hundred years. People come to these churches to pray and worship and support each other, help each other and this historic church was exactly that.”

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The church was founded nearly 200 years ago in 1816 after a dispute between its founding members and the Free African Society over burial ground, according to the church website.

WATCH: Police provide early details of suspect in Charleston shooting

In 1818, according to CNN, many of the church founders were jailed for gathering free blacks with slaves without supervision.

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Denmark Vesey, one of the church’s founders, organized a slave uprising in Charleston in 1822 and in the ensuing controversy the church was burned to the ground.  Vesey was arrested along with 312 other people and was one of the 35 people executed for their role in the uprising.

It was rebuilt in 1834 but a law outlawing black churches kept the congregation from worshipping in public. Services continued underground however and it wasn’t until 1865 that the congregation could once again worship in public, according to the church website.

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The building was also destroyed by an earthquake in 1886 and has been rebuilt twice since, in 1891 and 1951. The church is also part of the National Parks Services’ National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Dr. Martin Luther King also made stops at the church:

The church’s current pastor Clementa C. Pinckney, was a state senator, and among the nine victims. According to Quartz, he came from a line of pastors which fought racism; his grandfather sued the democratic party for allowing whites-only primaries and his uncle advocated for desegregation of buses.

In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2012, file photo, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, right, talks to a supporter during a break in a hearing protesting his re-election in Columbia, S.C.
In this Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2012, file photo, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, right, talks to a supporter during a break in a hearing protesting his re-election in Columbia, S.C. AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins, File

In April, Pinckney held a prayer vigil for Walter Scott, a black man from neighbouring North Charleston who was shot and killed by a police officer.  Rev. Joseph Darby of Beaufort AME Church told NBC News following Wednesday’s shooting that Pinckney was also instrumental in a bill mandating police officers wear body cameras.

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There was a bible study in the church of the basement at the time of the shooting. Officials said the suspect sat in on the bible study for nearly an hour before opening fire.

Officials have named Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old male, as the suspect in the shooting.

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