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Two More Fires At Black Churches in Mississippi

June 18, 1996

KOSSUTH, Miss. (AP) _ Two black churches were destroyed by fire late Monday night in this northeast Mississippi community, the latest in a series of blazes at Southern churches.

It was not immediately clear whether arson was involved.

The Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and Central Grove Church were deserted when the fires were reported about 9:30 p.m., said an Alcorn County sheriff’s spokeswoman who asked not to be identified.

She said a police officer en route to one of the fires spotted the other.

Volunteer fire departments had both fires under control by midnight and an investigation was begun immediately to determine whether the fires were set, the spokeswoman said.

Cedar Grove was the larger of the two churches; nearby Mount Pleasant was more than 100 years old.

President Clinton has mobilized federal agencies to help local authorities in their investigations of the dozens of fires at black churches in the last 18 months.

Earlier Monday, morning fires destroyed a rural black church in Rocky Point, N.C., and heavily damaged the former sanctuary of a mostly white congregation in Georgia.

``This has got to stop,″ President Clinton said in Washington. ``This tears at the very heart of what it means to be an American.″

State and federal investigators brought in specialists and a trained dog to determine if the blaze at Hills Chapel Baptist Church in Rocky Point was arson. There wasn’t enough information yet to label the fire suspicious, but it fit the pattern of many of the other fires, said Mark Logan, agent-in-charge of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

``With a lot of the churches, it’s in a rural area, set apart,″ Logan said.

The Hills Chapel fire began about 1:20 a.m. Flames destroyed most of the building, leaving only parts of two side walls upright and leveling a dining hall. It was almost noon before the embers cooled enough to let investigators begin picking through shovelfuls of ash.

The church had not received any threats, said the Rev. W.T. Howard Sr.

``We don’t have a racial problem here,″ said Janice B. Hand of Burgaw, the church’s Sunday school secretary. ``It is a close-knit community, a nice place.″

The small church, with an active membership of about 35, was insured for $200,000, said insurance agent Gene Jordan. The congregation was founded in 1876 and the building that burned Monday was erected in 1905.

Dogs trained for arson investigations also were used Monday in Pine Lake, Ga., 10 miles east of Atlanta, where fire gutted a former sanctuary of Pine Lake Baptist Church.

The fire appeared to be suspicious although there was no immediate evidence of arson, said Thomas Brown, DeKalb County public safety commissioner. It apparently began on the front porch, authorities said.

Pine Lake Baptist’s congregation is mostly white, with about a dozen blacks out of 1,000 members.

In other cases church fires in the South:

_ Two white boys, ages 9 and 10, were arrested on arson charges after a fire that destroyed a storage shed Monday morning at Life Christian Assembly Church just outside North Charleston, S.C. The fire destroyed theater props and folding chairs, charred an outside wall and sent smoke into the Pentecostal church, whose congregation of 120 is evenly divided between black and white members.

``It was not a situation where they were attempting to burn a church. They were simply hiding out behind a church to play with fire,″ said Dorchester County Sheriff John Southerland.

_Congregations around Lake City, Fla., have been warned about a letter containing veiled threats that was sent to several black residents, authorities said. The letter bore a swastika, references to the Ku Klux Klan and names of the churches.

``The letter itself is threatening in nature ... but there have no actual physical threats and it doesn’t actually threaten a person or church,″ said Elizabeth Hirst of the state Department of Law Enforcement. ``But the nature of it isn’t positive.″

_A man arrested in an arson fire that destroyed a predominately black church last week in Enid, Okla., admitted to federal agents that he started the fire with gasoline, according to an affidavit filed in court Monday.

Christopher Harper, 35, described as retarded, was charged Monday with second-degree arson. He did not enter a plea, and bail was set at $100,000.

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