Sometime after 8pm on Tuesday evening, Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina went up in flames. Located 60 miles north of Charleston, the building’s torched roof lit up the night sky. It was similar to the six other predominantly black southern churches that have burned in the two weeks since the slaughter of nine black men and women inside a historic Charleston church on 17 June.
Federal investigators, finding no evidence to suggest arson, believe a lightning strike may have sparked the blaze. Local officials, urging patience until their investigation is complete, have yet to determine an exact cause. With only the red brick walls left standing, residents of the tiny town and across the nation have slowly grown suspicious that the seemingly isolated church fires may be connected.
The latest string of church fires has led to at least three confirmed arsons in Charlotte, North Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Macon, Georgia. In all, more than a half-dozen churches have burned since the mass shooting.
As the Federal Bureau of Investigation looks at whether any of the fires classify as hate crimes, recent church fires like the one in Greeleyville, a house of worship that KKK members torched two decades ago, have resuscitated memories of high-profile arsons dating back to before the US Civil War.
“There are no other institutions as central to African American life as the church,” says Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a University of Washington in St Louis professor who studies religion and American history. “If you want to go after a really potent symbol, that’s the place you go. It’s sort of like burning the cross. You could say the cross is just a couple pieces of word put together. But that symbolism means something very important.”
People have set fire to black churches since the early 19th century, a time when houses of worship largely operated as underground places, offering glimmers of hope and freedom for enslaved black men and women. During Reconstruction, black ministers founded churches for emancipated slaves where they could pray, learn to read and participate in a larger community. As the number of black churches grew over time, Maffly-Kipp says, arson became one of a number of terrorist tactics such as bombings and threats against ministers, used to deter black community members from regularly meeting.
“The history is long and deep and dark,” Southern Poverty Law Center Senior fellow Mark Potok says. “Churches were burned as a matter of suppressing people, trying to keep black people ‘in their place.’”
Between 1954 and 1968, Potok says, arsons and bombings struck nearly 100 black churches, many of which provided space for activists to organize their Civil Rights Movement efforts. The most infamous church attack, the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, resulted in the deaths of four young black girls. The four KKK members who plotted the attack never faced charges.
Christopher Strain, a Florida Atlantic University American studies professor and author of Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South, says the pattern reemerged in the mid-90s, when a rash of church fires prompted then-US President Bill Clinton to form the National Church Arson Task Force (NCATF) and Congress to pass legislation doubling the penalties for future church arsons. Between January 1995 and September 1998, the NCATF opened investigations into 670 arsons, bombings, and attempted bombings at houses of worship.
In June 1995, Mount Zion AME Church burned down for the first time in its history. Ku Klux Klan recruits Christopher Cox and Timothy Welch doused the church’s pews and pulpit with accelerants before setting the century-old house of worship ablaze. Cox and Welch later confessed to the arson and were sentenced to nearly two decades in prison. According to Potok, a South Carolina jury ordered the Christian Knights of the KKK and several individual Klansmen to pay a $37.8 million civil judgment for their conspiring roles in the crime — which a judge later reduced to $21.5 million.
Since then, church fires have continued to occur at a high rate, despite fading from the national news. According to the National Fire Protection Association, about 280 houses of worship, including those practicing all different faiths, were intentionally torched between 2007 and 2011. A recent Associated Press analysis found only 16% of all church fires were ruled to be arson.
“People are now saying here we go again, but they never really stopped,” Strain says. “The church burnings got national press in the 1960s and 1990s. They have never really gone away.”
Strain says many church blazes now happen due to a number other factors — old wooden buildings, faulty electrical wiring, unintentional homeless fires, or angst-filled teens — largely unrelated to hate crimes. However, Strain notes, the reoccurrence of arsons after the recent Confederate flag debate warrants the heightened vigilance. Though it may be coincidence, he says, the track record of church burnings in Southern states is hard to ever ignore.
Mount Zion AME Church is a rare exception for a church burning down twice. But in cities like Knoxville, black churches have seen history repeat itself in recent weeks. College Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, one of the three churches where fire investigators have confirmed arson, suffered about $50,000 in damages to the building and a church van on 21 June.
Nearly two decades before the recent arson, Inner City Baptist Church, located about five miles away, burned down thanks to a mix of Molotov cocktails, gunpowder, and kerosene. Racial slurs marked the charred sanctuary walls where former NFL Defensive End Reggie White once preached.
College Hill pastor Cleveland Hodby III, who nearly six months ago joined the 280-member congregation, says enough of his church has survived to continue holding regular services. However, he says, the toughest thing to fix won’t be the damage to the burnt property or torched van. It’ll be recovering the sense of safety his house of worship held for his congregation.
“There’s a feeling of a need for safety,” Hodby III says. “Church has always been a safe place. The aura of church being a safe place has been taken. I have to restore that.”