Residents of Charleston, South Carolina on Thursday attended the funerals of two people killed last week when a white gunman opened fire at a historic black church, killing nine worshippers at a prayer meeting.
The funerals were held under police security, as the deadly attack has heightened racial tensions in the city, as well as the country, and ignited heated debate over the Confederate flag, which the alleged shooter revered in online photos.
The first funeral was for 70-year-old Ethel Lance, a Charleston native who had been a member of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where the shooting occurred on June 17, for most of her life.
Lance served as a sexton at the church for the last five years, helping to keep the historic building clean. She had five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
"She was a God-fearing woman," Lance’s granddaughter Najee Washington, 23, told the Los Angeles Times. "She was the heart of the family, and she still is. She is a very caring, giving and loving woman. She was beautiful inside and out."
Lance’s funeral took place at the Royal Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. Among the attendees were South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The second funeral was for Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, and was held at nearby Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
Coleman-Singleton was a track coach at Goose Creek High School and a minister at Emanuel AME.
“When she came to games, you knew she was there,” Goose Creek Principal Jimmy Huskey told Charleston’s Post and Courier. “She was going to be yelling and screaming for the Gators, and she loved Goose Creek High School.”
Funerals for the other victims were set to happen over the next week, including one Friday for the church pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney. President Barack Obama is scheduled to deliver a eulogy for the late pastor, who also served as a South Carolina state senator.
The funerals were held amid growing controversy over symbols of the Confederacy in public places. A monument to former Confederate President Jefferson Davis had the phrase "Black Lives Matter" spray-painted on it Thursday in Richmond, Virginia, the latest of several monuments to be defaced around the country.
Gov. Haley on Tuesday endorsed long-running calls from the state’s African-American community and religious leaders to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol’s grounds in Columbia, where it has flown since 1962.
State residents in support of taking the flag down say that it is a symbol of white supremacism and slavery, and therefore unfit for display on state grounds. However, opponents have sought to distance the flag from last week’s deadly shooting, contending that it is a symbol of Southern heritage not hate.
Gov. Haley has said that while the flag will always remain part of the history of South Carolina, where the rebels fired their first shots against federal forces in 1861 at Fort Sumter, it should not be part of the state’s future.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press