The FBI, ATF and Louisiana state authorities are working to determine who or what caused three historically Black churches to burn in a local parish in a span of 10 days, a string of incidents authorities have called “suspicious.”
“There’s clearly something happening in this community,” Louisiana Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said at a Thursday news conference. “That’s why it’s imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is.”
On April 4, the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas, Louisiana, was reduced to a pile of smoldering rubble after an overnight fire ripped through the church’s interior, destroying over 140 years of history. That morning it became the third predominately Black church to catch fire in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. A blaze struck St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on Tuesday, March 26, after which flames brought down the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas just seven days later.
Authorities are still investigating the cause of the fires and establishing connections between the three incidents. As reported by The Washington Post, a fourth, smaller fire was reported March 31 at a largely white church more than 200 miles away in Caddo Parish, Louisiana. That fire turned out to be arson and, so far, doesn’t seem to be linked to the string of blazes in Landry.
Rev. Gerald Toussaint, who headed the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, said he was on his way to his full-time job when his wife called him with the distressing news.
“By the time I got back here, it was gone,” Toussaint told the Daily Advertiser. “My church has a lot of history. I don’t understand it. What could make a person do that to a church?”
For many, the fires evoked a dark history of threats and violence against Black houses of worship. The Reconstruction and civil rights eras were rife with instances of Black churches being targeted with fires and even bombs.
Then, in 2015, a 21-year-old white gunman opened fire during bible study at the historic Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The massacre left nine worshipers dead. The perpetrator, Dylann Roof, later told investigators that he wanted to start a “race war.”
Pastor Freddie Jack, President of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, told CNN’s Don Lemon on Sunday that he believes the fires are racially motivated. St. Landry Parish’s population is about 42 percent Black, while Opelousas is 54 percent Black, according to the news site.
“I feel our district was being targeted because all three of the churches were in our district,” said Jack. “At first we thought it may have been an electrical problem but then when the second church … burning occurred, I realized it was our sister church, … then two days later the third occurred so at least to me, (it) made me think that we’re being targeted.”
The NAACP also addressed the fires in a statement Monday, calling them “domestic terrorism” sparked by the “emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country.”
State fire authorities on Thursday declined to say whether arson was the cause of the fires, but acknowledged there was a clear “pattern” and said there was no coincidence that there are three fires.
Even with their churches destroyed, however, the St. Landry Parish community is refusing to let the incidents keep them down.
“The church is not that building. The church is the people,” Toussaint told ABC News. “If we stay together as a congregation, the church is alive and well. “We can rebuild the building as long as we stay together.”