Who would burn houses of God? Painful questions: Fires at three black churches in the past month have left residents of tiny Boligee, Ala. -- black and white -- looking for answers.

January 30, 1996|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BOLIGEE, Ala. -- In the charred rubble of the Little Zion Baptist Church, the Rev. Woodson D. Lewis sees Satan's hand in the burning of his and two other black churches in the piny woods near this rural town.

"That's the devil's work, through some human being," says the 92-year-old pastor of this hilltop church where blacks have worshiped for a hundred years.

The fires at the three black churches in the past month brought federal agents to town recently to investigate. Residents in this majority-black county worry that the fires may be racially motivated. And yet, those same people, blacks and whites among them, find it hard to believe that a local resident would set the fires.

"I don't want to say it's anything racial," says Greene County Probate Judge Earlean Isaac, the first black woman elected to the office. "I don't want to say that it's not."

Mount Zion Baptist Church burned just before Christmas, on Dec. 22, five days after its congregation of 35 to 40 members met for their twice monthly service. Little Zion Baptist and Mount Zoar Baptist burned the same evening, Jan. 11. The churches now look eerily the same.

Their once brick or cinder block facades have been reduced to smoke-stained shells with only a blue Alabama sky covering them. Church pianos, bibles, wooden pews, Sunday school banners, a picture of the Last Supper, all reduced to heaps of ash. The churches shared remote locations and insurance insufficient to cover the cost of rebuilding.

"Who would stoop so low to burn our church?" asks Jennifer Watkins, 33, a Boligee City councilwoman and a member of Mount Zion. "We're not going to let them scare us. We're not going to let them turn us around. By the grace of God, we'll go on."

A. L. "Buddie" Lavender, 68, is the mayor of Boligee (pop. 268). And the fire chief and acting police chief. The town, whose Indian name means "splashing waters," is little more than a crossroads with a cafe, a grocery store and an abandoned warehouse. On the hill above the cafe sits three white-clapboard churches.

The churches destroyed by fire are within 10 miles of Boligee's single, blinking yellow traffic light.

Mr. Lavender can't help but think the fires are connected.

"Two of the churches that burned didn't have any electricity [on], no gas. It was a clear night, no lightning," says the mayor, who favors camouflage overalls and a Hawaiian-print hunting cap. "What's the chances of two churches having spontaneous combustion on the same night?"

Looking for connections

The Boligee church fires follow a spate of similar incidents in Tennessee. Investigators from the Birmingham, Ala., office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are looking for any links, although hundreds of rural miles separate the two areas.

Two young white men were recently sentenced for vandalizing three black churches in neighboring Sumter County, about 20 miles from Boligee. A third vandal killed himself before sentencing. Investigators also are exploring any connection to the vandalism, says ATF agent James M. Cavanaugh.

The causes of the Boligee fires remain "suspicious and undetermined," he says. Unlike a Jan. 8 fire in Knoxville, Tenn., no "obvious incendiary devices" such as gas cans or Molotov cocktails were found in the ruins of the Boligee churches.

ATF has offered a reward for information about the fires. The FBI also is looking into the fires for possible civil rights violations.

Despite Alabama's tumultuous civil rights history, church burnings did not occur in placid Greene County where farmers raise catfish and cattle. Bordered by three rivers, Greene County sits in the heart of the "black belt," a swathe of rich fertile farmland long ago tilled by slaves. Antebellum homes grace town streets and shady hilltops.

In 1970, blacks captured nearly all elective offices in the county. They had to go to the Supreme Court to get on the ballot, but once they did, local government forever changed. Even then, a time some whites deride as "the revolution," coexistence prevailed.

That's why the church burnings in Boligee puzzle Spiver W. Gordon, vice president of the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"What does a black person [have] to gain from burning down a black church?" asks Mr. Gordon, a councilman in the city of Eutaw, the county seat located about 10 miles from Boligee.

Race relations

Race relations in Greene County seem cordial; some attribute it to an attitude of "live and let live." But race surfaces in conversations here, and some residents say racism is used as a "trump card" to polarize the community.

Mr. Gordon says he feels in his "gut" that "some mean-spirited white person from out of the county" burned the Boligee churches. Asked why, he says, "We've been raised and taught you don't put your hand against God's church. I'm sure whites have been taught the same thing but history has shown "

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