On Tuesday evening, flames engulfed the 100-year-old Mount Zion AME, a historically black church in Greeleyville, S.C. Authorities are still investigating the cause.
Mount Zion is the latest in a string of black churches in the South that have gone up in flames since nine people were killed at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
Tuesday’s fire is especially poignant, and painful, for many. Twenty years ago, the same church was burned to the ground by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
As NPR has reported, investigators are still probing all of these incidents. They’ve concluded that church fires in Charlotte, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., were arson. And authorities suspect that a church fire in Macon, Ga. was intentional as well.
Fire departments from two counties were able to quell the blaze at Mount Zion after two hours, but the damage was done. Only the brick walls of the building remain. The Rev. John Taylor, pastor of Mount Zion AME, pointed to the shell of his church Wednesday morning and issued a promise: “We will rebuild.”
The congregation had to rebuild Mount Zion in 1995, as well, after two Ku Klux Klan members burned it down. Both pleaded guilty to the crime — serving 14 years and 12 years, respectively.
When Mount Zion reopened in 1996, President Bill Clinton spoke at the dedication ceremony:
“I ask you today, my fellow Americans, to celebrate the triumph of the rebuilding of this church, to express gratitude for the fact that the huge vast majority of our people of all races deplore what has been done and revere the right of every American to worship God in his or her own way. But I ask you to reaffirm our responsibility to keep working, working together, not to ever let America fall back into those patterns of hatred and division, which can so easily consume any civilized people.”
The Associated Press quotes a “federal source” saying that Tuesday’s fire was not the work of an arsonist. Severe storms hit the region Tuesday night, and, according to CNN, investigators say lightning may have been responsible.
Still, Craig Chilcott, a senior agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and other Explosives in South Carolina told The Charleston Post and Courier that no cause has been ruled out.
“South Carolina has been through a lot the last two weeks and we’ve made the best of a terrible situation,” local Sen. Cezar McKnight told the Post and Courier. “I would hate for this to be something somebody did on purpose to try to poison the love and fellowship.”
For locals, the image of flames and smoke billowing up from the church brought back painful memories. “That was a tough thing to see,” Williamsburg County councilman Eddie Woods Jr., who is black, told the AP. “It is hurting those people again.”
Church fires aren’t uncommon. According to a 2013 report from the National Fire Protection Association, there were an average of 1,780 fires per year at churches, mosques, temples and other religious buildings between 2007 and 2011. About 16 percent were intentionally set.
There’s a particular history of attacks, especially arson, against black congregations. The New York Times has compiled a list of black churches that were burned down over the past two decades, as has Mother Jones.
On Tuesday, the NAACP urged congregations to take precautions. Twitter users are using the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches to mourn and discuss this latest string of attacks on back congregations.