Yet another black church in the South went up in flames Tuesday night, this time historic Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal in Williamsburg County, South Carolina — 20 years after it was burned to the ground by Ku Klux Klan members.
The Clarendon County Fire Department said shortly before midnight that the fire was under control, but it released a photo showing the church with its roof completely collapsed.
“The fire is currently under investigations and the cause of the fire is unknown,” Williamsburg County Sheriff spokesman Alex Edwards said.
Williamsburg County Fire Chief Randy Swinton told NBC News it wasn’t known whether the fire was intentionally set, noting that a lightning storm passed through the area about the same time the blaze was reported. He said the 8,000-square-foot church was destroyed.
No injuries were immediately reported, but The Kingstree News of Williamsburg County reported that the church was “gutted.”
Greeleyville Mayor Jessie Parker said state Law Enforcement Division and the U.S. Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms investigators were on site. “We’re hoping by morning that we’ll know something,” he said.
It’s the latest in a string of fires at predominantly black Southern churches that began after a white gunman killed nine black worshipers at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, about 50 miles south of Greeleyville, on June 17.
The fires have fueled concerns about the potential for a new wave of racist violence since the Charleston shootings, and the FBI has launched an investigation.
Asked whether Tuesday’s fire could be related to the other recent blazes, Mark Keel, chief of the State Law Enforcement Division, told the Post and Courier newspaper of Charleston, “Certainly, I think we all are concerned about those things.”
Keel said the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other federal agencies had been notified.
Mount Zion, founded more than 110 years ago, was burned to the ground June 20, 1995, by two members of the Ku Klux Klan, who pleaded guilty the next year.
President Bill Clinton attended the rededication of the rebuilt church a year later, speaking words that have been echoed in the last two weeks:
“It was the church that saved the people until the civil rights revolution came along. And it is, therefore, I think, doubly troubling to people … who spent their entire lives working for equal opportunity among our people, working for an end to the hatred that divided us for too long, to see our native South engulfed in a rash of church burnings.
“We have to say to all of you who have been afflicted by this, we know that we’re not going back to those dark days, but we are now reminded that our job is not done. Dr. King once said, ‘What self-centered men have torn down, other-centered men can build up.'”