charleston south carolina shooting church
A small prayer circle forms nearby where police are responding to a shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina June 17, 2015. A gunman opened fire on Wednesday evening at the historic African-American church in downtown Charleston and was still at large, a U.S. police official said, but there were no immediate confirmed reports of casualtiesREUTERS/Randall Hill

The Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church that was targeted by a white gunman who reportedly killed nine people is a historic African-American church - often referred as "Mother Emanuel" - which became a symbol of black resistance in the 19th century.

Founded in 1818 by a free black and former slave, Denmark Vesey, the church was supported by white clergy in the city and attracted 1,848 members. After the church was closed twice for violating slave laws, Vesey and his followers tried to organise a slave revolt.

But the plan was foiled; Vesey and five slaves were executed by hanging and the church was burned to the ground in revenge. Church-goers had to go underground to worship until after the Civil War.

According to the church's website, the church was rebuilt as a two-story church in 1872 and destroyed by the devastating earthquake of 31 august 1886. The present edifice was completed in 1891.

The King Center, the memorial to Martin Luther King, tweeted a picture of King at the church in 1962:

Charleston police said nine people have been killed in what has been described as "hate crime" shooting by a white gunman in the historic church. The man, described as "slender and clean-shaven", went on a rampage at around 9pm local time while a Bible study meeting was taking place inside the church. Eight of the victims died inside the building, while another died afterwards.

The suspect, a 21-year-old white male, is still at large and is "obviously, extremely dangerous" said city police chief Gregory Mullen.

Following the shooting, a group of pastors held a prayer in a circle across the street.

Charleston mayor Joe Riley called the shooting "an unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy".

Emanuel AME Church in Charleston
Emanuel AME Church in CharlestonCalvin Webster