Black church burned in Mississippi, ‘Vote Trump’ scrawled on side

New York Times News Service

GREENVILLE, Miss. — A predominantly African-American church in Greenville, Mississippi, was badly burned Tuesday evening, with the words “Vote Trump” spray-painted on the side of the building, an incident that comes amid rising concerns over possible violence in the final days of a racially charged presidential campaign.

A state fire marshal, right, and a ATF agent collect evidence as they investigate the fire damaged Hopewell M.B. Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016. "Vote Trump" was spray-painted on an outside wall of the black member church. Fire Chief Ruben Brown tells The Associated Press that firefighters found flames and smoke pouring from the sanctuary of the church just after 9 p.m. Tuesday. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Mayor Errick D. Simmons of Greenville said that firefighters, responding to a call around 9:15 p.m., discovered the Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church “engulfed in flames.” Fire Chief Ruben Brown said the blaze took about an hour to fully extinguish. The church sanctuary was heavily damaged, he said.

By Wednesday evening, Brown said investigators had concluded that the fire was “definitely arson” after discovering “some type of solvent or flammable substance” inside. And Police Chief Delando Wilson said a “person of interest” was being interviewed by authorities “to see if this person was an active participant in this crime, or to rule them out from being a participant.”

The 200-member church has been a fixture for more than 110 years in Greenville, a Mississippi Delta city of about 32,000.

“Our hearts are broken but are not angry,” Carolyn Hudson, the church pastor, said at a news conference called Wednesday by city officials. “But hearts are broken, and we are saddened by what has happened.”

No one was injured in the incident.

At the news conference, Wilson said the incident was being investigated as a hate crime.

“We feel that the quote that was placed on the church was basically, it’s an intimidation of someone’s right to vote whatever way they choose to vote,” he said.

The FBI office in Jackson, the state capital, released a brief statement saying that it was “working with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to determine if any civil rights crimes were committed.”

Mississippi’s secretary of state, Delbert Hosemann, said Wednesday that he had been in contact with “authorities in Greenville” and the state Highway Patrol about the attack. Those discussions led him to believe that the burning and vandalism were not committed by “somebody of a political nature,” he said.

In a Wednesday evening phone interview including the mayor, the fire chief and police chief, Simmons said none of them had been in contact with Hosemann or his staff about the matter. Wilson said investigators were keeping all possible motives on the table.