Six churches with predominantly black congregations across five Southern states have been damaged or destroyed in fires since the racist attack on Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, and of those fires, at least three have been ruled arson by investigators. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group that monitors possible hate groups and crimes, is now sounding an alarm over the fires, worrying that the incidents may have been spurred by the Charleston shooting and the subsequent national backlash against Confederate symbols. So far, there is no evidence to indicate that the arsons were hate crimes, though the investigations are ongoing, and the number and timing of the incidents is of course suspicious, particularly considering the long, shameful history of black churches being targeted in racially motivated attacks.
The first of these fires happened on Monday, June 22, in Knoxville, Tennessee, when someone set fire to bales of hay at the entrance of the College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church, according to WATE. A church van was also set on fire and destroyed, but the building suffered only minor damage. Knoxville police are not investigating the fire as a hate crime, but rather as vandalism, citing no evidence of the former.
Early Tuesday morning in Macon, Georgia, another fire was intentionally set at the God’s Power Church of Christ, causing significant damage to the building, according to the Telegraph. The small church had also been burglarized several times recently, and when firefighters arrived they found the front door locked and wired shut, which might have made fighting the fire more difficult. The Associated Press reports that, though the blaze was ruled arson, authorities have found no evidence to suggest it was a hate crime.
The next fire occurred on Wednesday, June 24, at the Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Investigators determined that the blaze, which caused more than $250,000 in damage, was deliberately set, though no suspects have been identified. A Charlotte Fire Department spokeswoman told CNN that “investigators have no direct evidence that the fire was a hate crime.”
At about 3:30 a.m. on Friday, June 26, the Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina, burned down as well, though the Augusta Chronicle reports that the cause has yet to be determined. The church’s congregation had moved to this location in Warrenville after their last church was destroyed by suspected arson. The FBI is now investigating the fire.
There have been at least two other fires at predominantly black churches in the South: the Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson, Tennessee, and the Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Florida. However, for now investigators believe those fires were started accidentally, either by lightning or electrical problems.