According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, at least six predominantly black churches in four Southern states have been damaged or destroyed by fire in the past week. While some may have been accidental, at least three have been determined to be the result of arson.
The first arson fire was on Monday at the College Hills Seventh Day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. The Knoxville fire department has said that the arsonist set multiple fires on the church’s property and the church’s van was also burned. On Tuesday, a fire in the sanctuary of God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia was also blamed on arson, although the investigation is ongoing. And on Wednesday, a fire at the Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina was determined to be caused by arson, destroying an education wing that was meant to house a summer program for children, impacting its sanctuary and gymnasium, and causing an estimated $250,000 in damage.
The cause of a fire that destroyed the Glover Grover Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina on Friday is unknown, while lightning is suspected in a fire that destroyed the Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tennessee on Wednesday and a tree limb that fell on electrical lines is suspected in a fire at the Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida on Friday that destroyed the church and caused an estimated $700,000 in damage.
Black churches have frequently been targets of violence. Since 1956, there have been at least 91 incidents of shootings, bombings, arson, or vandalism against black churches, according to a tally by the Huffington Post. One particular incident stood out during the Civil Rights Movement, when four young girls were killed and 22 were injured at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.
That’s likely a vast undercount, however, given that records from the 1970s and 1980s are scarce. There was a spike in violence in the 90s, with more than 30 black churches burned within 18 months in 1995 and 1996. That led to the passage of the Church Arson Prevention Act in 1996, which gave federal authorities more oversight of such crimes, increased sentencing, and reauthorized the Hate Crimes Statistics Act.
Violence continues today. In 2004, two men admitted to vandalizing the Mount Moriah Baptist Church in Roanoke Virginia and causing $77,000 in damage. In 2008, three white men were convicted of burning down the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts to protest President Obama’s election. In 2010, a white man firebombed the Faith in Christ Church in Crane, Texas to get in with a white supremacist gang. And in 2013, two white teenagers started a fire at the New Holy Deliverance Outreach Ministry in Axton, Virginia.
The Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston has its own long history of violence. It’s the oldest A.M.E. church in the South, dating back to 1791 when it was formed by free blacks and slaves. But in 1822, it was burned to the ground after one of its founders attempted to plan a slave revolt