A Louisiana parish has more questions than answers after three historically Black churches caught on fire in 10 days. Investigators had yet to confirm if the fires were connected but they have not ruled out the possibility that they were intentionally set, or hate crime related.
“There is clearly something happening in this community,” State Fire Marshal H. Browning said in a statement on Thursday. “That is why it is imperative that the citizens of this community be part of our effort to figure out what it is.”
The three fires occurred in St. Laundry, a Lousiana parish north of Lafayette, between Tuesday, March 26 and Friday. According to the New York Times, the fires destroyed St. Mary Baptist Church in the community of Port Barre, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas. Each of the three churches is more than 100 years old and one of them had been remodeled just two years ago. The churches were fortunately vacant when the fires started so there were no reported injuries.
Though investigators said at a Thursday news conference they found “suspicious elements,” they also reminded community members that this would be a lengthy and tedious process before reaching an official conclusion.
“Investigating a fire is a very lengthy process,” Browning said. “It’s one of the most complicated and unconventional crime scenes you’ll ever enter because most of the evidence is burned away.”
The New York Times also reported that there was a small fire at a fourth historically Black church in Caddo Parish that officials believe was intentionally set. However, they said they didn’t know if it was also connected to the other fires. With hate crimes having risen by 17 percent since 2017 and the historical significance of Black southern churches being set on fire, officials have not ruled out racism as the reasoning behind these fires.
“If the hate crime definition was violated, we will certainly vet those things out,” Browning said.
While investigators were continuing to comb through evidence, law enforcement announced it would be increasing security at other churches. And with dozens of worshippers without a place to go on Sunday, the District Missionary Baptist Association offered to assist the church-goers.
“Having fellow pastors with sister churches of this district to offer the use of their facilities for needs for worship services, weddings or even funerals. Because in spite of these buildings being lost the ministry must continue,” Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, told KLFY 10 on Thursday.
Officials said they would do whatever it took to get to the bottom of what caused the fires. The FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have also joined the investigation.