Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church, a historically Black church in Greenville, Mississippi, built more than 100 years ago, was set on fire and vandalized on Tuesday night. “Vote Trump” was written on the right side of the church with spray paint.
None of the church’s 200 members were in the building at the time of the fire. No injuries were reported.
A press conference was held Wednesday with comments made by Greenville officials including the mayor, police chief and fire chief, who are all African American.Seventy-eight percent of the city’s 32,000 population is Black, according to U.S. census data.
Mayor Errick D. Simmons, the first Black man to be elected mayor of Greenville, said the city’s fire department sent four units to the scene after a 911 call was received at 9:15 p.m. He said they discovered the church “fully engulfed in flames.”
Fire Chief Ruben Brown Sr. said the fire was extinguished in about 12 minutes, “but it took an additional hour-and-a-half to do salvage and overhaul and also to extinguish hot spots.”
Brown also said the heavy fire and smoke damage is primarily in the sanctuary of the church. OnWednesday evening he confirmed that the fire was intentional.
Hate Crime Investigation
Simmons said during the press conference the city has asked the “hateful and cowardly act” to be investigated as a hate crime as it is an “assault on people’s right to worship.”
The Jackson, Mississippi, division of the FBI confirmed it is investigating.
“The FBI Jackson Division is aware of the situation in Greenville, and we are working with our local state and federal law enforcement partners to determine if any civil rights crimes were committed,” the bureau said in astatement sent to The Clarion Ledger on Wednesday.
Police Chief Delando Wilson said investigators worked all night Tuesday to collect evidence and spoke with possible witnesses. Wilson knows of no surveillance video that might have captured images of those responsible.
“We don’t have any suspects at this time,” he said. “We are possibly talking to a person of interest.”
He also explained why he sought the arson to be investigated as a hate crime:
“The reason we labeled it as a hate crime is we feel that the quote that was placed on the church is basically an intimidation of someone’s right to vote whatever way they choose to vote.So that would be definitely considered a hate crime.
“This is a predominantly Black church. No one has the right to intimidate someone, and pressure someone into a way that they want them to decide to vote in this election.”
But “as far it being a racial issue,” he said, “I can’t say that.”
Greenville Mayor Errick D. Simmons speaks at a press conference November 2.
Simmons said he saw the fire and vandalism as “an attack on the Black church and the Black community.” “It appears to be a race crime,” he said.
“I was able to walk into the church. I was able to talk to those congregants. I talked to folks who were fearful. I talked to people who were intimidated. I talked to people who were sad and crying.
“This should not happen in 2016. It happened in the ’50s, in the ’60s. But, we’re in 2016.”
‘Our hearts are broken, but we are not angry.’
The Rev. Carilyn F. Hudson, the pastor of Hopewell, said her congregation members plan to rebuild.
“Our church was a historic church,” Hudson said. “It had been there for over 111 years.
“Our hearts are broken, but we are not angry. We are saddened, but we do know that all things work together for good to those that love the Lord. You all pray for us. We’ve had plenty of people in the community come out and offer their assistance. So we thank God for all of you.”
In regard to “Vote Trump” painted on the church, a reporter asked Hudson if the church had made any political statements recently. Hudson responded, “No.”
Simmons said a prior incident of vandalism occurred in the city. On September 11, the mayor’s office was notified that the word “N**GER written on the boat ramp in the city of Greenville.”
He said after consulting with advisors, his office contacted the public works department to paint over the vandalism.
In regard to the racial climate in Greenville, Simmons said it is “fairly good.”
Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said Wednesday Mississippians should not assume a Greenville church was burned and vandalized for political reasons.
“I would be very careful about jumping to conclusions as to why that occurred,” Hosemann said. “I’ve been in contact with the Mississippi Highway Patrol and authorities in Greenville concerning that and any effect it may have on the election. Before we start going back that this was somebody of a political nature, we need to get all the facts because my discussions indicate that that may not be the case.”
In regard to the presidential election, Trump continues to struggle with gaining the support of Black voters. The Republican candidates’ repeated negative and offensive remarks on the campaign trail, including saying thatAfrican Americans live in ghettosand are uneducated, and also his slowness to disavowformer KKK leader David Duke, who’s running for a seat in the Louisiana senate, have exacerbated his campaign’s struggle.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church rebuild. An $11,000 reward is being offered for information leading to the conviction of whoever committed the crime.