GREELEYVILLE — Vernelle Williams heard about the flames spewing from Mt. Zion AME Church on Tuesday night about the time neighbors saw the fire erupt from the roof.
A fearful memory shot through Williams. “Oh God! Not again!”
She was just 23 in June 1995, and she vividly recalls the emotion that enveloped her when she learned that the Ku Klux Klan had torched her church in a terror campaign to instill fear among blacks and Hispanics in poor farming communities scattered around the heart of the Pee Dee.
Those fires were part of a wave of black church torchings that swept the South in 1995 and 1996.
“It hurt me to believe people could do such a thing.” This time, she said, “hopefully, it was by nature and not someone of hate.”
On Wednesday, federal state and local investigators again swarmed over Mt. Zion AME after the Tuesday fire gutted the church, leaving only its walls standing.
Once again, the fear is that the fire may be part of a new wave of black church burnings possibly sparked by calls to bring down Confederate flags from public buildings and property.
Those efforts to furl the flag came after a reported white supremacist was charged in the June 17 killings of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest in the South.
Mt. Zion is the seventh black church to burn across the South, the second in South Carolina, since June 22.
On that day, Gov. Nikki Haley called for taking the Confederate flag off the Statehouse grounds because of the racial hatred it had come to embody for many.
Investigators have deemed those fires as suspicious or of undetermined origin.
It is difficult to say from the available data whether the current rash of church fires is a part of a dangerous trend.
Williamsburg Fire Chief Randy Swinton discounted the reliability of an early Associated Press report based on an unnamed source that blamed the fire on lightning from a powerful storm. “Bogus, bogus. We just don’t know yet,” he said.
Craig Chillcott, a senior agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in South Carolina, said during a news conference Wednesday at Greeleyville town hall that the investigation is ongoing, there is no timetable for its completion and no cause has been ruled out.
Chief Mark Keel of the State Law Enforcement Division said “we can’t make a definitive call yet” because investigators are awaiting the lab test results. The tests are on material that specially trained dogs hit on in the church remains.
The dogs are trained to alert on the scent of petroleum products.
Keel cautioned that the dogs may not have hit on the scent of gasoline but on burned remains of a petroleum-based product such as a rug or PVC pipe.
Keel said authorities will wait for confirmation one way of the other. “It’s easier to get the story straight to start with than walk it back.”
Asked if investigators saw any indication of a lightning strike, Keel said he’ll wait for the lab results.
Those tests at SLED’s lab are being conducted on a priority basis and he expects results in a couple of days.
A time of hate
The Rev. Allen Parrott gazed down a straight, narrow dirt road and then over at the blackened shell of Mt. Zion AME Church along S.C. Highway 375, just west of the intersection with U.S. Highway 52.
When the church was rebuilt in 1996 from the first fire, “we brought it out here so that it would be more visible,” the presiding elder of the AME Church’s Kingstree District said.
They had hoped the move to a more public spot along S.C 375 would make the church safer than back along the lonely dirt road. Before the 1995 fire, Mt. Zion AME stood farther down the dirt road, out of sight of most motorists and passersby.
Klan rallies were common in the area and the state at that time.
And controversy boiled tempers across the state over the Confederate flag then flying from atop the Statehouse dome, in a place normally reserved for sovereign honor.
In Clarendon County a newly organized and active Klan held regular recruiting rallies, often near black churches.
Hoyt Collins, then sheriff of Clarendon County, grew concerned when he learned about the participation of certain people in the recently formed Klan chapter.
He tried to have their rallies shut down but couldn’t because he was told even a Klansman has a right to free speech.
So he decided to closely monitor the rallies and make arrests for even the slightest legal transgression.
At one rally near Macedonia Baptist Church, Klan loudspeakers blasted hate speech through the church as members shuddered, and Klan posters were tacked to the church’s door.
When Mt. Zion AME burned to the ground on June 20, 1995, authorities initially ruled it an accidental fire, but when Macedonia went up in flames two days later, authorities reinvestigated and determined both to be arson.
Suspicion quickly turned to the Klan.
Two Klan members later would plead guilty to setting the blazes and a fire at a Hispanic migrant camp. A Klan leader also would be charged by federal authorities.
President Bill Clinton showed up at Mt. Zion AME at one point to offer support to the congregation and those of other burned churches.
In the days and months after those fires, many black residents of Clarendon and Williamsburg counties watched every car or truck they didn’t recognize.
Many jotted down descriptions and license plate numbers to give deputies if necessary.
During 1995 and 1996, a total of 16 churches, four predominately white, would be struck by fires, many the result of racial hatred or vandalism.
The Rev. John Taylor watched silently Wednesday as federal, state and local investigators combed over the remains of his church.
He’s been outside Mt. Zion AME Church almost full time since getting a call Tuesday night that the church he has served for nine years was ablaze.
The roof had collapsed in an explosion of flames when he got to the church.
When firefighters doused the flames, the brick walls were all that remained, and federal and state arson investigators took over, sending petroleum scent-alerting dogs into the debris.
Church members, other clergy and the curious stopped by throughout Wednesday as investigators continued their work.
Taylor turned his attention to his 62 active members and the future. He and his flock will lean on each other and trust in the Lord, he said. “God sustains us. We will rebuild.”
Taylor said the church was insured and should have enough to pay for the reconstruction. In the meantime, the church is looking for a temporary house of worship.
Stanley Pasley, Williamsburg County supervisor, said Mt. Zion will be able to count on the county for a temporary home. “We’re going to ensure that they have adequate accommodations for worship service,” he said.
Mt. Zion AME is insured by Southern Mutual Church Insurance, which bills itself as the largest insurer of churches in South Carolina.
The company also insured the church at the time of the 1995 fire. Company President Robert Bates said lightning struck at least four times Tuesday in the vicinity of Mt. Zion AME based on tests it conducts in heavy electrical storms.
The insurance company has come to expect a certain number of lightning- and storm-related fires each year. But the frequency of church fires across the South in recent weeks disturbed Bates.
“It comes across as unusual to see that many cases of church fires in that short of a time period. That’s why we’re so glad that ATF investigates these situations and we try to investigate them as well,” he said.
The number of reported incidents itself may not be that unusual.
An average of 31 houses of worship across the country experienced a fire of some magnitude every week from 2007 through 2011, according to a 2013 estimate by the National Fire Protection Association, which analyzed government data and survey results.
The NFPA study also found that, nationwide, as many as five churches per week saw some sort of fire that was labeled as intentional.
Fire officials caution, however, that the “intentional” designation also includes things such as candles being knocked over, stove fires, and other incidents caused by people. It does not necessarily indicate arson, they said.
The timing of these fires, along with the racial makeup of the churches involved, introduces more uncertainty. Comprehensive data concerning racially motivated attacks against churches are not available, making it difficult to say whether the recent spate of fires is an anomaly or not.
The acrid odor of warm, water-soaked ashes still hung in the summer as Mt. Zion’s pastor wrestled with the question of whether the fire might have been the work of hate.
“I do pray no,” Taylor said.
Emory Parker, Christina Elmore and Glenn Smith contributed to this report. Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558.
The shell of Mt. Zion AME Church near Greeleyville is all that remains after a fire of undetermined origin burned the 19 year old buliding Wednesday July 1, 2015. It was rebulit in 1996 a year after it was torched by the KKK. ATF agents and other investigators swarmed over the building and grounds today out of concern that it could be purposfully set in reaction to calls for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.×
Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville burned Tuesday night.×
The shell of Mt. Zion AME Church near Greeleyville is all that remains Wednesday after a fire Tuesday night. ATF agents and other investigators swarmed over the building and grounds out of concern that it could have been set on purpose in the wake of calls to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.×
Greeleyville community residents cry and pray together as they gather at the town hall on Wednesday.×