Fire Guts Black Church in Maryland; Latest in Series of Blazes
Jun. 19, 1996
BERLIN, Md. (AP) _ Fire heavily damaged a black church on Maryland's Eastern Shore early today in the latest in a series of blazes at predominantly black churches, authorities said.
The fire at the St. John's United Methodist Church was reported about 2:45 a.m. and was put out about 30 minutes later, said Bennett Bozman, a firefighter with the Berlin Volunteer Fire Department.
Arson and federal investigators were called in but it was not immediately clear whether the fire was set. The blaze damaged the church's white clapboard main sanctuary and destroyed an annex, leaving only cinder block walls, Bozman said. The church was empty at the time.
``It was a beautiful place to worship,'' said Keith Purnell, 25, who has been a member of the church all of his life. ``All the members knew one another.
``Why this church? I guess because it's in a black community,'' he said.
The fire comes a day after an attempted arson at a white church in the same Mississippi community where nearly simultaneous blazes destroyed two black churches only a few miles apart.
Federal agencies are investigating dozens of suspicious fires that have struck black churches across the South and Southeast in the last 18 months. Investigators also are looking into a series of fires at mostly white churches.
President Clinton was to meet with Southern governors at the White House today to outline steps to fight the epidemic.
In response to the fires, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation Tuesday that would broaden federal authority to prosecute crimes against religious property.
Authorities in Maryland would not speculate on the cause of the fire at St. John's in Berlin, a city of 2,600 about 25 miles east of Salisbury. Bozman said there was an electric storm in the area this morning, but it was not clear whether it ignited the blaze.
Worcester County is the subject of a continuing voting rights lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide in coming weeks whether to hear the suit. The county last year elected its first black county commissioner under a voting system ordered by a federal judge.
A Pocomoke City Councilman, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the county's branch of the NAACP filed suit against county officials in November 1992, claiming that the county's at-large voting system discriminated against black candidates.
In Kossuth, Miss., about 190 miles northeast of Jackson, a liquid-filled plastic jug was found burned into the lawn of an all-white church Tuesday, a day after two black churches nearby were gutted by suspected arsons.
Sheriff Jimmy Taylor said investigators also found evidence of an attempted break-in at the Kossuth Church of Christ, and were calling it a ``failed attempt at arson.''
Federal agents joined the investigation of the fires that destroyed the two black churches in Kossuth on Monday night, and community leaders pledged to rebuild them. Officials said $25,000 was raised in 12 hours.
The fires at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church and Central Grove Missionary Baptist Church were reported just 17 minutes apart and are among more than 30 black churches burned in the South since January 1995.
``This is getting disturbing,'' James Cavanaugh, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, said Tuesday. ``It is getting disgusting.''
FBI and ATF agents met behind closed doors with investigators. Cavanaugh said a total of 15 ATF officers from Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee and at least eight FBI agents had joined the investigation.
In related developments Tuesday:
_ In North Carolina, a white volunteer firefighter was arrested and charged with arson in the May 25 burning of a black church in Robeson County, N.C.
Billy Shawn Baxley, 17, lived near the Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, authorities said, declining to comment on a possible motive.
_ A fire that destroyed a rural black church in Rocky Point, N.C., on Monday appeared to be a result of an electrical problem rather than arson, authorities said.
_ In Atlanta, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition spoke at a meeting with representatives of several burned churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Anti-Defamation League.
Reed said he would ask the 100,000 churches on his group's mailing list to help raise $1 million to rebuild burned churches, black and white.
_ In New York, another fund-raising drive was started by a group of rabbis, as speakers likened the fires to Nazi Germany's Kristallnacht attack on synagogues in 1938.