On a day full of tears and pride, they came by the hundreds Saturday, the powerful packed into Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston with those who best knew Cynthia Graham Hurd to celebrate a life that drew strength and beauty from looking after others.
Hurd, the sister of former North Carolina Sen. Malcolm Graham of Charlotte, was one of nine people gunned down in the church this month, allegedly by a young white supremacist.
Every seat in Emanuel was taken. Among the congregation – amid unusual security – were her four brothers and sister, including Graham, his wife, Kim, and daughters Cortney and Nicole. Her husband, Steve Hurd, a merchant sailor away at sea when his wife was killed, was there too.
Hurd’s gray casket covered in flowers sat in front of Emanuel AME’s altar, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that the killing of “The Emanuel 9” is the “most impactful” event to civil rights in America since the slaying of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
“We lost Cynthia, but you’ve got a lot left,” Jackson said to her family.
Republican South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was adamant that something meaningful would come out of the June 17 shootings that revolted the nation. “We are sorry that this happened and I am sorry this happened on my watch,” Haley said. “But we will make this right.”
In the pews with Haley were longtime Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. Joining Jackson on the altar was AME Zion Bishop George Battle of Charlotte, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chairman.
After the church filled, about 150 more were steered to Second Presbyterian Church a block away to watch the ceremony on a live stream. As they filed in, Second Presbyterian elders and deacons were to greet them.
After the 2-1/2-hour service, her family buried Hurd at the church’s cemetery near Charleston’s Magnolia Gardens – releasing nine white doves. She would have turned 55 last Sunday – she called it her “double nickel,” Malcolm Graham told the gathered Saturday.
Faced with profound loss, her husband and siblings chose to celebrate Hurd’s life of public service – rather than wade into the deep grief that has gripped Carolinians and the nation for 11 days. Authorities charged Dylann Roof, 21, of Gaston, S.C., with nine counts of murder after he allegedly fled the church and was arrested in Shelby the next day.
“We refuse to call her a victim. That would give the perpetrator power, and we’re not willing to give him any power,” Graham, also a former Charlotte City Council member, said in an interview. “My sister loved her family, she loved this city and she loved her God.
“We refuse to dwell on what happened. She is not a victim. She has secured a great victory – she is with him.”
Honors for Hurd multiply
Instead, Graham and the others who spoke Saturday focused on Hurd’s life as a public servant, mainly as a devoted librarian for 31 years who didn’t just check out books, but used them to teach children – many from the same low-income area of east Charleston where she and her siblings grew up – how to better their lives.
“My sister had no children, but she had a community of children in her libraries,” Malcolm Graham said. “She helped them discover themselves and to learn skills that would help them through life.”
After earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of South Carolina, Hurd was promoted to manager of the St. Andrews Regional Library, the system’s second busiest of 16. Thursday, the Charleston County Council voted to rename that library the Cynthia G. Hurd St. Andrews Regional Library.
Saturday, all 16 libraries were closed “so her library family would have the opportunity to deal with their grief,” said library spokeswoman Jamie Thomas.
When her family visited from Charlotte, they knew not to go to her house first. They knew they’d find her at her library, Malcolm Graham told the congregation.
Hurd was also the College of Charleston’s longest-serving part-time library for 16 years. Last week, the school’s trustees voted to name one of the college’s “most prestigious” scholarships for S.C. residents for Hurd.
And since 1995, she had also served on the Charleston Housing Authority’s board, making it her mission to help low-income residents find proper housing and helping her politician brother form his positions on affordable housing.
Faith sustains family
At Emanuel AME, she found her faith and built yet another family.
Malcolm Graham said his faith sustains him.
“I find comfort that she was not alone and that God was by her side,” he said. “My faith tells me I have to believe that I must trust him and hold onto his hand. That gives me comfort, but it doesn’t erase the pain and sting of losing my sister.”
He said that hundreds of condolences, particularly from a legion of friends in Charlotte, have helped, too. On Saturday, he thanked them all for their prayers, hugs and letters.
Graham said he ran into a Charlotte businessman “who most people know” at a Charleston hotel. They hugged and the businessman asked what he could do to help. Before Graham left, the businessman tucked something into his shirt pocket. Graham later took out a check for $10,000.
“It blew my mind,” he said. “So many people have done so many kind things for us.”
Graham and his family have started a fund in his sister’s name to help buy books for Freedom School Partners in Charlotte.
‘She became the matriarch’
Hurd was a constant visitor to Charlotte.
For 16 years, starting in 1999 when brother Malcolm was first elected to the City Council, Hurd was in Charlotte helping him campaign.
“She’d stuff envelopes, she worked the polls on election day – anything that needed to be done she did it,” Malcolm Graham said.
Hurd was also “the glue” that binded the family when their parents died, Melvin Sr. in 1984 and Henrietta two years later.
“She became the matriarch of the family,” Malcolm Graham said.
Saturday, he said he only needed to call her to get caught up on family news. Then he grew somber and began to weep:
“I understand the national conversation. But when the TV cameras go away and the elected officials go away, it’s just me and Steve and (sister) Jackie and (brother) Robert ...”
Choked up, he couldn’t continue naming the rest.