Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The ATF says recent blazes at black churches are likely not hate crimes. But black churches still face serious existential problems.
In the South, white racists terrorized black believers for decades by bombing and burning their churches. In the wake of the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, fires at a number of black churches over the last week have revived fears of arsonists targeting and destroying historically black sacred spaces as an assault on their congregations.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms is still working with local investigators to help determine the cause of the fires. But it appears unlikely that all of these blazes were inspired by the Charleston shootings. On Tuesday, the ATF stated that there is no reason to believe the fires are linked or that they are hate crimes.
On Friday, the Southern Poverty Law Center made note of a rash of church fires. Of what are now six known fires at black churches, only the blaze in Macon, Georgia, has been ruled an arson case. And there is no evidence of a hate crime there or elsewhere, unlike the mass church burnings witnessed in the 1990s.
The latest fire—reported Tuesday night at Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina—was ruled out today as a case of arson, according to the Associated Press.
Dozens of churches across the United States have put out a call for donations from their congregations to help repair the churches damaged by fire this week. Unfortunately, there will likely be many more church fires before the summer is over. According to the National Fire Protection Association, from 2007 to 2011, emergency officials responded to fires at some 1,780 churches and religious properties each year.
That’s nearly 9,000 reported religious-structure fires over five years. (The figure accounts for fires at churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, religious schools, and funeral parlors.) Almost one-third of these fires were caused by kitchen cooking equipment.
Churches in the Black Belt may be more vulnerable than churches elsewhere. Many of these buildings are older, having been rebuilt or expanded as their congregations adapted to the stresses and changes faced by black populations in the South. Churches were typically the first structures that freed slaves built after the end of the Civil War; many still stand that date back to the 19th century. Despite their prominence in the black community, only about 60 black churches are included in the Historic American Buildings Survey.
Dale Greenwood Green and Ruth Connell, architects and faculty at Morgan State University, explained to me in 2011 that black churches in the South face “diminishment,” especially rural black churches. Students at Morgan State are working to document the history and evolution of these churches using advanced architectural modeling software.
As their congregations have struggled, so have black churches, which function as crucial social safety-net service providers. Rural black churches especially have struggled to adapt to accessibility requirements under the Americans with Disabilities Act—a bitter irony, since for many elderly and disabled churchgoers in the Black Belt, the church is a locus of service, assistance, and health care.
It makes sense that black churchgoers remember the church fires of the 1990s when they look at the pattern that emerged late in June following the Mother Emanuel shootings. These recent fires may not turn out to be hate crimes, but black churches nevertheless face an existential threat in the South.