Within ten days, three historically black churches in one Louisiana parish have burned.
Authorities are still investigating, as they’ve identified “suspicious elements” in each case; investigators haven’t ruled out arson, or whether the fires are connected. But given the United States’ long, racist history of burning black places of worship, people are understandably anxious.
“There is clearly something happening in this community,” said Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning, “That’s why it’s imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is.”
The first of three fires was reported at the St. Mary Baptist Church in St. Landry Parish on March 26. Just over ten miles southwest, a second fire was reported at the Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2. Two days later and roughly seven miles away, a third fire at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was reported. There were no reported deaths or injuries, as the churches were vacant at the time of the conflagrations.
Each of the churches involved is over 100 years old and linked through the District Missionary Baptist Association, according to KLFY. Rev. Gerald Toussaint, the pastor at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, told the New York Times he learned his church was ablaze on his way to work; his wife called him after she saw the news on social media. The church, founded in the 19th century, was practically gone except for one brick wall and the remains of a front corridor.
“I’m trying to find out who did it, why they did it, did it have anything to do with me,” Toussaint, who also drives trucks to make a living, told the Times.
“I don’t know none of this,” he added.
Separately, a fourth fire was “intentionally set,” officials say, at a predominately white church in Caddo Parish on March 31.
In addition to local authorities, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating the fires.
“Our churches are sacred, central parts of our communities and everyone should feel safe in their place of worship. We do not know the cause of these fires in St. Landry and Caddo parishes, but my heart goes out to each of the congregations and all of those who call these churches home,” said Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), in a statement.
The black community has long relied on churches for organizing and advocacy, which is why they’ve so often been targeted. There have been at least 100 church burnings since the 1950s, according to the Huffington Post — with the caveat that this is far from an exhaustive list because many burnings, bombings, and other acts of domestic terrorism went unreported during the Civil Rights era.
Fires by arson at places of worship are a not-uncommon hate crime. In 1996, in the wake of church attacks, Congress passed the Church Arson Prevention Act, which makes it a federal crime to intentionally deface, damage, or destroy any religious property.
Terrorizing black churches isn’t limited to arson. In 2015, nine black churchgoers were murdered by a white supremacist at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina — an act of domestic terrorism that shocked the nation.
Despite the fact that homegrown terrorism is on the rise and right-wing extremist movements have been tied to the majority of the most lethal acts of terror, the Department of Homeland Security recently disbanded a group of analysts focused on this issue, according to the Daily Beast.