COLUMBIA — Denise Quarles had not spoken publicly about her mother’s horrific murder in a Charleston church, but when a service was held on her late mother’s college campus Tuesday, she could not pass up the opportunity to speak.
The daughter of Myra Thompson, one of the Charleston Nine victims in the Emanuel AME Church shooting, Quarles spoke to Benedict College students about building relationships. She spoke along with other family members who lost loved ones during the June 17 shooting.
The event took place at Antisdel Chapel on the Columbia campus, a sacred place similar to that of the Emanuel Church’s Bible study setting in which declared white supremacist Dylann Roof is alleged to have opened fire. Nine people were killed, one was left wounded, and three survived inside the study room.
Quarles described movingly how she has coped with the grief of the slayings, but said her main focus now is to reach out to youth and help them form relationships with people they see as different. She believes this movement can reduce the number of hate crimes.
“If you put good in the world, you will get good back,” Quarles, of Atlanta, said. “The foundation needs to be laid that you need to treat everyone the way you want to be treated. Racism is taught; you are not born that way.”
The survivors of the church shooting showed the world what forgiveness look like when they publicly forgave Roof the days following the crime. Instead of Charleston turning into another flashpoint for violent demonstrations similar to those of Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore the community came together.
As a result, Emanuel AME Church was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by a group of Illinois politicians on Monday. The winner of the prestigious award will be announced in October. Quarles said momentum for being nominees “picked up” after the bond hearings, in which family members addressed Roof.
“I think it is well deserved,” she said. “I think it is more so about the family members. It’s a community thing. We all did something to encourage people not to riot. We came together as a community.”
Quarles’ mother was a graduate of Benedict College, a time in her life that she showcased to her daughter throughout the years, and a key reason why she chose this setting to talk about her experiences in dealing with her mother’s passing.
A historically black private college, Benedict was founded in 1870 by Baptist missionaries after the Civil War to educate newly-freed African-Americans.
“She absolutely loved this college,” Quarles said. “I remember coming here as a young girl for homecoming and even when we would randomly be here in Columbia, she would always bring me here to campus. I feel like I attended the school somewhat.”
Thompson was a retired Charleston County schoolteacher and a Bible study teacher at Emanuel AME, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal congregation in the South.
The event hosted on Tuesday was part of the celebration of the college’s Black History Month. Inside the chapel away from the press, members of the Charleston church answered questions and described their experiences to the school’s student body.
Jarrett McKinnon, a student at Benedict, wanted to attend the service to understand more about being a community leader.
“We need to make a difference in our communities. Before we go out and change the world, we have to change our community. That’s our future right there,” he said.
When asked what she wanted the day to be about, Quarles wanted the emphasis to be on the future, not the past.
“I just think that the main focus was how we are moving forward,” she said. “We can’t forget what happened. We have to take what happened and turn it around to a positive.”