Widow of Mother Emanuel pastor: ‘Much prayer is needed’

Widow of Mother Emanuel pastor: ‘Much prayer is needed’

Jennifer Pinckney had hoped to be in Bible study on the evening of June 17, 2015.

But her six-year-old daughter had other plans.

The two were in the senior pastor’s office at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., on the night that Dylann Roof opened fire during the church’s Wednesday night Bible study, killing nine people. Among the victims was Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and Jennifer’s husband.

She and her daughter heard the shots, barricaded the door and hid under a desk in a secretary’s office, according to her testimony during the penalty phase of Roof’s trial.

“Be quiet. Don’t say anything,” she told her daughter. The two survived.

Roof was eventually sentenced to death.

In the years since the attack at Emanuel AME, Pinckney has worked hard to pick up the pieces and to give her daughters a sense of a normal life. She was recently in Atlanta, where her daughters were taking part in a dance competition, and sat down for an interview with RNS.

It has been five years since the tragic events of the Charleston shooting. Can you take us back to the day it happened and what you experienced?

In the beginning, you’re in denial. You don’t always register when things happen. Especially as traumatic as the Charleston shooting. You just kind of think to yourself, “Did this happen to me?”

To be honest, at first, I was a little in denial that it really happened at all. I can tell you that I immediately went into mom mode to protect and be there for my two girls, which was and still is my first priority. I can remember getting home that night and seeing police cars everywhere in our yard and allowing my girls to briefly look out the window as I tried to explain to them the reality of what had happened.

Jennifer Pinckney, widow of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, speaks during a Feb. 9, 2016, event at Duke University on the violence that targeted Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Photo courtesy of Megan Mendenhall, Duke University

How are you and the kids doing?

We have our good and bad days. We are living in Columbia, S.C. I’m adjusting to being a single parent, and the girls are doing well in school and enjoying participating in dance competitions, which they have been involved in since they were little girls.

When did it become real to you that your husband was gone?

Because he traveled a lot it was easy for me to think that he would be coming home, so at first, it was like he was gone on a trip. It wasn’t until they brought his car home that it became real to me. I can remember sitting in his car and crying. That’s when it became real for me. There have been other moments, but I can remember that one vividly.

Are there any other emotions that you had to deal with after your husband was murdered?

There are just different little things I went through, like when I’d go into his closet, the bedroom, the bathroom, I never moved his pajamas that he had left out. Even when I’m looking at my girls, sometimes I can see him in them.

There has been so much said about your husband, who was he to you?

Reverend Clementa Pinckney’s wife, Jennifer Pinckney, top right, sits with her daughters, Eliana, right, and Malana, left in pink sweater, during services honoring the life of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, on June 26, 2015, in Charleston, S.C., at the College of Charleston TD Arena. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

There are many people who think they knew him, but they don’t, which is one of the hardest things that I have to deal with.

Clementa was so relatable to whoever he would meet. He was a tall man, so when he would talk to the girls, he would kneel down to their level to speak to them. He was a calm man. Even when he served in the state Senate, his colleagues would say he would hear both sides and would remain calm in listening. One of his favorite sayings was “Have you thought about it this way?” He was truly an attentive man. As busy as he was, Sunday was our time as a family. He would intentionally block that time off for us even after preaching on Sundays.

What type of pastor was he?

I can still remember his sermons. In fact, after his death, I went back and listened to some of them. Although I was in the room when he preached them, listening to them again ministered to me. His sermons felt like he was ministering to me from his grave.

His sermons have ministered to me through some tough moments in my life.

A lot has changed in America the last three years; what are your thoughts?

(Deep Breath) Yeah, a lot has changed, which is why I think much prayer is needed.

What is your life like today?

After the incident took place there were lots of people around, and the phone was constantly ringing, then after a while, everything just stops and people move on. I’m a mom first, and raising my two girls is my first priority in life. I want to make sure that I do that role well.

How do you raise two girls, whose father was killed because of a hate crime?

You know, I try to teach them just because someone may not like you, you have to go beyond that. You’re always going to run into difficult situations and different kinds of people, and you have to get beyond that person’s ignorance.

What would you like for people to remember about your husband?

That he loved God, he loved and respected everyone. It’s also important to note that no matter how busy he got, the girls and I came first. He would always take time for us. Clementa would hear everyone’s point of view. Many of his colleagues called him one of the most peaceful people that they knew.

Do you sometimes ask yourself why this didn’t happen to someone else?

I don’t because it shouldn’t happen to anyone else.

How have you handled the pressure of being in the public eye?

Before the tragedy, most people didn’t even really recognize me. When the tragedy happened and the media started coming around and started coming to my house, I had to go into protection mode to make sure that my girls were cared for.

I’m a mother first.

New Program Will Train More Black Men to Become Preschool Teachers

New Program Will Train More Black Men to Become Preschool Teachers

Early Learning Director Kahlil Mwaafrika gives a presentation at Crispus Attucks High School. Provided by Blake Nathan


After teaching for more than 20 years, Kahlil Mwaafrika said he’s used to being an anomaly in urban Indianapolis schools. As an adjunct professor of early childhood education at IUPUI, only a handful of his hundreds of students are Black men.

“There’s very few people who look like me in buildings,” he said.

So in early 2018, he started working on a program to recruit, train, and place Black men as Indianapolis preschool teachers.

Mwaafrika brought his idea to Blake Nathan, CEO of the Educate ME Foundation, an organization that works to diversify the national teaching population by recruiting and retaining educators of color. Earlier this year, Mwaafrika and Nathan formed the idea into a program called Educate ME Early and partnered with Early Learning Indiana to create 50 two-year fellowships for men of color.

They hope to address the barriers that discourage men of color from working as preschool teachers, including a lack of representation in preschool classrooms and the misconception that teaching preschool is like a babysitting job.

Early Learning Indiana is providing funding for Educate ME to give fellows up to $1,000 in stipends throughout the two-year commitment. Once the fellows complete training and begin working, they’ll be paid $10-14 per hour. Educate ME will place fellows at Early Learning Indiana’s nine child care centers before staffing other sites.

Brittany Krier, chief strategy officer for Early Learning Indiana, said early learning teachers have an “unparalleled opportunity for impact” by working with students in the most formative years of their lives. The organization has been looking to diversify educators while trying to recruit more preschool teachers in general.

“As a field, we have some work to do to welcome more men, and more men of color, into the profession overall,” Krier said. She views this program as a starting point in the push to make Indiana teachers more reflective of their students.

It’s not clear how many Indianapolis preschool teachers are Black, since the state doesn’t track that data. But among full-time K-12 educators statewide, almost 93% are white, according to the state’s education department. Nearly 30% of students in Indiana are people of color, however, creating a disconnect in representation.

In early childhood education, 36% of the nationwide workforce are people of color. In Indiana, that number drops to 14%, according to a press release from Early Learning Indiana. Of Indiana’s some 30,000 early childhood educators, 7% are men.

This poses a challenge for both students and people of color, especially men, who are considering becoming teachers.

“It’s difficult to recruit young Black men if they don’t see themselves represented in the field,” Nathan said.

Preschool teacher Zachary Ferguson has been working at Day Early Learning in Fort Harrison for eight years. Of his 20 co-workers, only one is a man. He advises Black men who might be hesitant about entering the field to “take a chance.”

“I think we just have to strive to do better for our kids,” Ferguson said.

Becoming an early learning educator in Indiana requires much less training than for other grade levels, Mwaafrika said, making it easier to enter the field. But this also contributes to a stigma that can discourage people from considering early childhood education as a career.

Nathan said people often view it as a babysitting job. He hopes this program will help show people the benefits of working with children and the impact they can make. If a Black student has at least one Black teacher in grades three, four, or five, they are more likely to graduate high school, according to a 2017 study by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.

Black educators can influence students of other ethnicities as well by “opening their cultural lenses,” Nathan said.

“Other races need to see African American teachers in the classroom that are well-educated and very competent in their instruction,” he said.

The Educate ME Early fellows start with an orientation through Early Learning Indiana and a state-required 12-hour training on topics including safety, curriculum, and discipline and child development. The candidates will spend their first year co-leading a classroom and can work as a lead teacher in their second year.

The program also offers a network of support for the new teachers, which Nathan believes is an important step toward keeping them in the field. Educate ME matches the fellows with mentors and connects them with other men going through the program.

The recruitment process has been slowed down by the coronavirus. When Nathan and Mwaafrika started accepting applications in Januarythey went into schools and organizations to meet people face-to-face. The state’s stay-at-home order forced them to move recruitment online.

Now they’re about a quarter of the way toward their 50-person goal, Mwaafrika said, and are accepting applications on a rolling basis.

While the program offers an opportunity for people who have been laid off due to the economic recession, Nathan said, they “still want people that have it in their heart to want to make a difference and change lives.”

One of the new fellows, Damani Gibson, said he has always enjoyed working with children, and he’s excited about the impact he could have on young students’ lives.

“Sometimes it just takes that one person to say ‘Hey, you can do this, you can do that, I’m here with you, I’m here to walk these steps with you to get you to where you want to be,’” he said.