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Investigators Probe Fires At 6 Black Churches In 5 Southern States

Jun 29, 2015
Originally published on June 30, 2015 10:55 am

Updated at 7:45 p.m. ET

Investigators continue their examination of a fire at the Glover Grove Baptist Church of Warrenville, S.C.

Fires damaged Glover Grove and some other black churches in the days following nine shooting deaths at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, raising concerns that the incidents were hate-inspired arsons.

Now, in the case of Glover Grove, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has released the following statement, saying it still doesn't know how the blaze started.

"Based upon the scene examination and the evidence collected, agents were unable to determine an exact origin or fire cause. As a result, agents were unable to eliminate all accidental ignition sources. Investigators observed no element of criminal intent. The cause of the fire was best classified as undetermined."

Here is our original post:

Glover Grove Baptist Church is nestled in a woody, quiet part of Warrenville, S.C., surrounded by trailer homes and old cars. The congregation is small, about 35 people, according to local reports. You have to look hard online just to find a phone number or an address.

Hours before President Obama spoke to a packed house in Charleston last Friday in another black church, delivering the eulogy for state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, Glover Grove Baptist Church burned to the ground.

It is one of at least six black church fires in the South, all of which have taken place in the week-and-a-half since nine people were killed in Emanuel AME Church.

Fires in Charlotte, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., are both being investigated as arson. Authorities in Macon, Ga., are investigating another there as "suspicious." A fire at a Tallahassee, Fla., church was likely caused by electrical problems, authorities have said. Another in Gibson County, Tenn., may have been caused by lightning. One burning in Charlotte is being investigated to determine if it could have been a hate crime.

Adonica Simpkins lives in a trailer home right next to Glover Grove Baptist Church. "I actually think it might be a hate crime," she said, looking across a field to the church's remains on a sticky, sunny South Carolina afternoon. "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."

The burning actually woke Simpkins up that Friday morning, and she was one of the first to call 911, right before she walked down the road to the pastor's house to make sure he saw it, too.

"You could actually feel the heat from the church," she said. "The actual power lines, just started, pop, pop, pop! Then the power went off. It was terrible. You could see straight through the church, how it was burning."

Another nearby resident, George Mack, said of the flames, "It was like standing inside of a volcano, with the lava flowing. It was so hot."

The pastor of Glover Grove, Bobby Jones, walked around the charred building Sunday evening with NPR, pointing out everything that used to be.

"The pulpit, the highest place, that's the pulpit," he said as he gazed past the caution tape. "My office used to be right there. And it's gone. All my robes, and everything, all my stuff is in that room right there, it's gone." He vacillated between tears and declarations of his faith as he spoke, assuring us, and perhaps himself as well, that everything would be OK. "When you see me crying," he said, "it's not sad. It's joy. I just thank God for what he's done, and what he's going to do, and what he did in the past."

Only two walls and the steeple still stood, with a large, unscathed white cross on top. The roof was gone. And just about all of the inside of Glover Grove Baptist Church was blackened and charred. Some things remained, covered in ash: the hollowed-out shell of a snare drum, a few chairs in the kitchen. You could still make out lyrics and notes on some pages of hymnals. Some church pews were still standing, but they were totally burnt as well.

When asked if he thinks the fire was a hate crime, Jones hedges. "I hope not. 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."

When pushed, Jones says he doubts it was an electrical fire. He's an electrician himself, and he says all of the equipment in the church was working fine before the fire. He thinks a person may very well have set the blaze. "If it's a hate crime, it had to be somebody that's not from here."

Richard Cohen is the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and he says the recent burnings of black churches throughout the South are "very, very suspicious."

"Black churches have long been the focus of civil rights activity," Cohen told NPR. "And for this reason they've been targeted historically."

There was a string of them in the '50s and the '60s, during the civil rights movement. Perhaps the most notorious was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963, which killed four young black girls.

A wave of church burnings swept the nation again in the '90s, prompting then-President Bill Clinton to sign the Church Arson Prevention Act, a law that increased jail time for people who burn churches.

As to this recent wave of church burnings, Cohen said, "It's not unreasonable to suspect that what we're seeing [now] is a backlash to the taking down of the Confederate flag, the determination of our country to face its racial problems."

Whatever the cause of the Glover Grove fire, Adonica Simpkins says she will still be afraid. We asked her what it's like to be a black person in South Carolina.

"I tell you what, I wouldn't walk down this road. I wouldn't walk down this road," she said, sighing as she pointed down the road where Glover Grove sits. "It's so much hate. You might walk down the road and hear the word n*****, for nothing. People used to be riding by, and just throw bottles at black folks."

Less than half a mile from the church and Simpkins' home, a Confederate flag waves on a front porch.

State investigators told NPR on Sunday that they have not yet determined a cause in the Glover Grove Baptist Church fire. The Aiken County Sheriff's Office has turned over its investigation to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and the FBI is investigating as well.

Jones is confident he'll rebuild. But this kind of tragedy isn't totally new to him.

"We had another church that burned down, over across the woods there," he said. "That's been, what, maybe 30, 32 years ago, no 34 years ago. I believe that was an arson."

Jones says before that church burned, he'd often find offensive messages written on the outside walls. Often, three letters, he said. "They put KKK."

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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.