On this dayApr 02, 2019

White Man Burns Down Greater Union Baptist Church and Two Other Black Churches Over 10 Days

William Widmer/The New York TImes

On April 2, 2019, the Greater Union Baptist Church, a Black church in Opelousas, Louisiana, was burned down in an arson attack. It was one of three historically Black churches that were targeted by arson attacks in St. Landry Parish over a 10-day period. The three fires occurred on March 26, April 2, and April 4 in 2019. The churches destroyed by these fires had been essential centers to the Black community in St. Landry for over a century.

A 22-year-old white man, the son of a local sheriff’s deputy, later pled guilty to intentionally setting fire to the churches and was sentenced to 25 years in federal court.

Although there was no explicit mention of race in the charges filed, the legacy of violent attacks on Black churches, and other predominantly Black institutions, dates back centuries. During the Civil Rights era, Black churches were well-established social and political spaces that served as organizational and meeting headquarters for Black activists fighting against racial segregation and oppression. In the course of that activism, Black churches became the targets of racially-motivated violence. Churches in Montgomery and Birmingham in Alabama were sites of highly-publicized and, in some cases, deadly bombings that aimed to thwart civil rights efforts and terrorize the entire Black community. The most infamous example of racist church destruction occurred on September 15, 1963, when the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, was fire-bombed, killing four young Black girls attending Sunday school services.

By the late 1990s, at least 80 Black churches had been burned, firebombed, or vandalized. “In the African American community,” the Department of Justice noted in a 1998 report on church arson, “the church historically has been a primary community institution, so... it was decidedly disturbing to see the number of churches being burned.”

In November 2008, hours after the election of President Barack Obama, the Macedonia Church of God in Christ in Springfield, Massachusetts, was burned to the ground by three white men. Two of the men later admitted to dousing the partially-built church with gas and setting it aflame to denounce the election of the nation’s first Black president.

These attacks on Black institutions in Opelousas continued a tradition of terroristic violence against the Black community that dates back to the Reconstruction era. In the fall of 1868, Opelousas was the site of Louisiana’s deadliest Reconstruction-era massacre. Over the course of about two weeks, white citizens terrorized Black residents to suppress their voter turnout in the upcoming election, killing an estimated 200 people and devastating the local community. The brutal attack terrorized Black voters into silence and no one was ever held accountable for this violence.

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