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Vandalism, Fires Strike at Rural Black Churches

January 19, 1996

BOLIGEE, Ala. (AP) _ Members of Little Zion Baptist spent four years raising $16,000 to add a kitchen to their church, set on a rural road in one of Alabama’s poorest counties. Now the church, where the descendants of slaves worshiped for generations, lies in charred ruins.

So does Mount Zion Baptist, down the road a ways. And so does Mount Zoar Baptist, another black church in this one-time plantation country of western Alabama.

All three burned down, and federal agents see indications of arson, said Jim Cavanah of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

Many in Boligee worry that it’s racism. In the next county, two whites recently admitted taking a sledgehammer to three other black churches last year.

``All through the movement, nothing like this happened,″ said 81-year-old J.C. Smothers, who has been going to Little Zion all his life and lives just down the road from the church.

District Attorney Barrown Lankster said Thursday he is certain the sledgehammer attacks were racially motivated.

As for the fires, Lankster said it appeared significant that two of the churches, Little Zion and Mount Zoar, burned the night of Jan. 11, the day the Sumter County Journal carried a story about the sentencing of the vandals.

All of the Boligee churches are within a six-mile radius. The vandalism occurred in Coatopa, about 20 miles away in Sumter County, which is also mostly black, with more than 40 percent of its residents below the poverty line.

Over in Coatopa, printing company employee John Rice has no doubt what’s behind the February vandalism and, now, the fires.

``Racism,″ he said. ``Thing have changed some, but not much.″

Two men pleaded guilty in the vandalism, admitting they smashed pews, windows and kitchen equipment with a sledgehammer in a drunken attack.

Albert Winston Short Jr., 19, and Robert Michael Soliday, 22, were sentenced Jan. 4 to six months in a work-release program and were ordered to pay $30,000 toward the damage they caused. A third defendant, 18-year-old Andrew Hoggle, died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound before sentencing.

Soliday and Short said they had been drinking heavily and remembered little of their actions. ``What I done was stupid, and I want to apologize and do the right thing,″ Soliday said at his sentencing.

Authorities investigating the church fires are also exploring a possible connection with a spate of arsons at black Baptist churches in Tennessee.

Boligee Mayor Buddy Lavender has several theories about the motive for the fires in his town of 268 people. But ultimately, he said, he believes the culprit will be a member of a white hate group, either connected to the Tennessee fires or copying them.

County Commissioner Willie T. ``Toby″ Webster, who is black, hopes racism isn’t behind the church fires. He said an arsonist’s desire for revenge can have many sources, including adultery or a drug deal gone sour.

At the only general store in the town, owner Tom Hylton said he suspects drug dealers. He said they may have been angered by the black preachers at the churches speaking out against drug abuse. Up until a couple of years ago, he said, drug sales took place openly in front of his store and the nearby post office.

But Webster, a deacon at St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Boligee, said he’s never heard about the preachers at the burned churches railing from their pulpits against drug dealers.

The three Boligee churches are now only brick or cinder-block shells standing near cemeteries. None of the churches was adequately insured because they didn’t have enough money, the mayor said.

``I felt awful bad about it because we didn’t think we had any enemies like that,″ said Smothers, whose parents are buried at Little Zion.

A member of Mount Zoar Baptist, Susie Mae Young, can’t bring herself to go look at the ruins of where her paternal great-grandparents and maternal grandparents both worshipped.

``I was raised up in that church,″ she said. ``I feel bad enough about it. To see it, that would just hurt worse.″

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