Investigators Probe Fires At 6 Black Churches In 5 Southern States Authorities are investigating fires that have damaged or destroyed black churches in South Carolina and nearby states following the shooting deaths of nine people at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church.
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Investigators Probe Fires At 6 Black Churches In 5 Southern States

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Investigators Probe Fires At 6 Black Churches In 5 Southern States

Investigators Probe Fires At 6 Black Churches In 5 Southern States

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Ever since a group of African-Americans were massacred at their own church in Charleston, S.C., across the South, churches elsewhere have been burning. Officials think one of those fires could have been an electrical fire. Two others have been ruled intentional. Investigators call another suspicious. NPR's Sam Sanders went to the remains of a black church in Warrenville, S.C., where the fire is still under investigation.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Only two walls and the steeple are still standing. The roof is gone. And just about all of the inside of Glover Grove Baptist Church is blackened and charred. Caution tape is all around the perimeter, but Pastor Bobby Jones can still easily make out what used to be.

PASTOR BOBBY JONES: The pulpit - the highest place right there, that's the pulpit. My office used to be right there.

SANDERS: And it's gone.

JONES: It's gone. And all my robes and everything, all my stuff is in that room right there, it's gone.

SANDERS: Witnesses say the fire began Friday morning between 3:00 and 4:00. Pastor Jones says he didn't even believe it at first when his wife woke him up.

JONES: I thought it was a dream, and I was devastated. I just couldn't believe that all this time - I couldn't believe that all the work that we've done.

SANDERS: Jones doubts it was an electrical fire. He's an electrician, and he says all of the equipment in the church was fine. He thinks there's a good chance a person started the fire. But when I asked Jones if he thinks it's a hate crime...

JONES: I hope from the bottom of my heart that it's not. I'm 72 years old, and I've never had a problem out of anybody.

SANDERS: But some in the neighborhood think it may have been racially motivated.

ADONICA SIMPKINS: I actually think it might be a hate crime.

SANDERS: Adonica Simpkins lives just across the street from the church lot.

SIMPKINS: The way things are happening these days, you never can say. Look how they went up there and shot someone in the church or other churches burning down. It's just so much going on in the world. You never know.

SANDERS: Warrenville is a rural town, more trailer homes than houses. Just down the road from the black neighborhood, a Confederate flag hangs from the porch.

What's it like to be a person in South Carolina right now?

SIMPKINS: (Laughter) I tell you what, I wouldn't walk down this road. I wouldn't walk down this road.

SANDERS: Why not?

SIMPKINS: It's so much hate. There's a lot of hate. You might walk down the road and hear the word [expletive]. People used to be riding by and just throw bottles and stuff at them.

SANDERS: At black people?

SIMPKINS: At black folks, yes.

RICHARD COHEN: The burning of black churches is, you know, very, very suspicious.

SANDERS: Richard Cohen is the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He says as investigations continue at the six churches burned in the last week or so, some motive might be determined.

COHEN: It's not unreasonable to suspect that what we're seeing is a backlash to the taking down of the Confederate flag, the determination of our country perhaps to face its racial problems.

SANDERS: And racially-motivated church burnings have happened before. There was a string of them in the '50s and the '60s during the Civil rights Movement and again in the '90s. State investigators told NPR on Sunday that they have not yet determined a cause in the Glover Grove Baptist Church fire. But before I left Pastor Jones outside the church, he told me this kind of thing has actually happened before.

JONES: We had another church that burned down over across the woods there.

SANDERS: Really?

JONES: Yeah.

SANDERS: How long ago did that happen?

JONES: Oh, it happened - that been, what, 30, maybe 30, 30 - 32 years ago.

SANDERS: Was that...

JONES: No, 34 years ago.

SANDERS: Was that an accident or arson?

JONES: No, I believe that was an arson.

SANDERS: That was an arson?

JONES: Yeah.

SANDERS: Jones says before that church burned, he'd often find words - vandalism - written on the outside walls, often three letters.

JONES: They put KKK.

SANDERS: Sam Sanders, NPR News, Warrenville, S.C.

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