Louisiana Looks For Answers After Fires Destroy 3 Historically Black Churches

Apr 7, 2019
Originally published on April 7, 2019 6:33 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're heading now to Louisiana, where three historically black churches have been destroyed by fires in the span of 10 days. Federal authorities have now joined the investigation into the fires, which started on March 26 in St. Landry Parish. No deaths or injuries were reported in connection with the fires. But all three churches house generations of worshippers, and their congregants are devastated. Katie Gagliano is with us now to tell us more. She's a reporter with The Acadiana Advocate, and she's with us from Broussard, La.

Katie, thanks so much for joining us.

KATIE GAGLIANO: Hi. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, could you just get us oriented? Where did all these fires take place? Give us a sense of where you are.

GAGLIANO: The fires took place in St. Landry Parish, which is a small parish just north of Lafayette. The two towns that it happened in are very close together - just minutes apart. The towns are Opelousas and Port Barre.

MARTIN: And where the churches were located - are these mainly rural areas? Were there people around?

GAGLIANO: So the churches where the fires happened are in rural areas, and that's one of the connecting factors between the fires. So the three churches were located on state highways in rural areas - you know, not too many people around, not many witnesses. And that's some of the talk that's happening about connections between these fires.

MARTIN: The fact that these are all historically African-American churches I would assume gives rise to some of that concern - I mean, given the fact that there's a history. Not just in Louisiana, but they may remember that in 1996, there was a spate of church fires. And this has happened in sort of other places. And I'm wondering whether that history is informing people's reactions to this in some way.

GAGLIANO: I think it definitely is. And race is part of the conversation around these fires. Now, of course, people are still trying to determine, were these churches targeted because they're historically African-American churches in this community? And that's something that we don't know yet, but it's definitely, I think, at the top of people's minds. And I was at a meeting of local pastors, including the three pastors of the churches that burned down, earlier this week on Thursday, and it's something they were discussing.

But at the same time, they were saying they're praying that this isn't race-based, that this is not the reason. They hope that no one in their community would do this for those reasons. You know, they're preparing themselves to face that if that's the case. But they're also trying not to stoke fear if that is not the case. So they're not at the point yet of saying they think this was a racist incident because they don't want to frighten their communities more than they already are. But if that is the result, they're ready to confront that as a group.

MARTIN: Could you talk a little bit more about what these churches mean to the community?

GAGLIANO: Of course. These churches have - like you said, have been around for over 100 years in these communities. I know two of the pastors said their churches have been around for 144, 146 years. People's families have attended these churches for generations. I saw, at the churches I visited, one church had a church cemetery immediately behind the building where the fire happened. People that were at the scene told me their family members are buried there. The pastor - this was at Greater Union Baptist - Reverend Harry Richard, his grandfather helped start the church. They have family buried on the grounds. I mean, these are places that have played roles in these families' lives for decades.

MARTIN: Did these congregations find places to meet today?

GAGLIANO: They did have places to meet today. I think two of the congregations were meeting in more kind of locally owned businesses. Another church, their pastor was also a pastor at another church in the community, and they were joining in with that congregation. So the local church community has been reaching out very heavily to these congregations to offer them places to pray, to worship, to continue having funerals, baptisms so that they can continue on as normal as they try to rebuild.

MARTIN: That's Katie Gagliano. She's a reporter with The Acadiana Advocate. She was kind enough to join us from Broussard, La.

Katie, thanks so much for talking to us.

GAGLIANO: Of course. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.