A 5-year-old child has survived the shooting at a Charleston historic black church by playing dead, according ABC news.

South Carolina police said nine people have been killed in what has been described as "hate crime" shooting by a white gunman at the historic Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church - one of the largest African-American congregations in the south often referred as "Mother Emanuel".

Family members told ABC news that the child was in the church at the time of the shooting and survived by playing dead. The suspect, a 21-year-old white male described as "slender and clean-shaven", entered the church while a Bible study meeting was taking place, sat down before standing up at around 9pm and started shooting.

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".

Reverend and pastor at the African Methodist church and South Carolina state senator Clementa Pickney was allegedly among those killed.

He was the youngest African American to be elected to the South Carolina State Legislature, becoming a state representative at the age of 23 in 1996. He had been a pastor since the age of 18.