Black Churches Impacted by Racially Motivated Arsons Receive Financial Support

The recent spate of racially motivated church burnings in one Louisiana parish generated an outpouring of concern and financial contributions. The burning of three churches, St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in St. Landry Parish in southern Louisiana sent shock waves through the faith community in the region and garnered the attention of faith partners and Civil Rights advocates.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, the effort received a fundraising boost after the massive fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Widely viewed as a national and international symbol of Christendom, some of France’s most prominent families have contributed to the nearly $1 billion pledged to renovate and restore the national treasure to its previous condition, according to CBS News.

Drawing on the momentum generated by the pledges to rebuild Notre Dame, supporters of the Louisiana churches took active efforts to boost a GoFundMe page, which had been established on April 10. The effort was spearheaded by Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Baptist Association, a nonprofit organization working with government officials to initiate the rebuilding effort. The page stated that all monies raised will be utilized to rebuild the churches and purchase necessities such as pews, sound systems, and musical instruments. The churches face obstacles in rebuilding. One challenge is limited insurance coverage, which does not cover some aspects of the rebuilding.

Church officials also stressed that churches must be rebuilt to the post-Katrina standards. This means the costs will be greater. The rebuilding effort began to compare the monies raised for the Louisiana churches with that raised for Notre Dame, with supporters pointing out that money is being raised to rebuild and renovate Notre Dame, but what about the Louisiana churches? This message was amplified by prominent personalities in the US including former First Lady and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and football player Benjamin Watson, according to Vox.

The effort received another significant boost from Yashar Ali, a contributor for HuffPost and New York Magazine. The fundraising effort increased from $159,000 to $2 million after Ali boosted the GoFundMe page on his Twitter account. The money was raised in 36 hours and will be divided equally between the three churches, according to Rolling Stone. Each church should receive around $715,000.

The church burnings occurred over a 10-day period beginning in late March. Many observers compared the burnings to the long history of post Civil Rights Movement attacks on black churches. Perhaps the most notorious of these was a wave of church burnings in 1995 and 1996 that consumed more than 145 churches in the South. More recent is the horrific murder of black congregants at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, 2015, known as the Charleston Massacre. Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, was charged with murdering nine black congregants including the church’s senior pastor and state Senator Clementa C. Pinckney. Roof later stated that he initiated the attack in an effort to ignite a race war.

While no one was killed in the Louisiana arsons, they occurred in rapid succession and their mysterious nature evoked fear and anger. The first fire occurred at St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26; the second at Greater Union Baptist Church on April 2; and two days later at the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on April 4. All of these arsons were investigated by local police, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

All of the churches existed for more than a century,were staples in their communities, and welcomed generations of Black families. Initial investigations suspected arson. State officials condemned the act. Subsequently, a suspect was arrested: Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a deputy sheriff. Matthews is charged with hate crimes and three simple counts of arson in burning a church building. Beyond a racial motive for the crime, authorities have suggested a possible connection to black metal, an extreme subgenre of heavy metal music. Matthews was a member of a black metal band called Vodka Vultures. The genre has been linked to other church burnings according to The New York Times.

Freddie Jack, who spearheaded the GoFundMe page effort, expressed gratitude for the efforts of the fundraisers. He noted the church arsons “changed our dwellings, but it did not change our faith.”

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.