Riddles amid the ashes Arson: Investigators of church fires in South Carolina say racism is only one motive fueling the rash of blazes.


DIXIANA, S.C. -- Robert Glenn Emerson, a 17-year-old high school dropout, reclined in a beat-up Lazyboy, kept his eyes on a talk show and admitted in a monotone that he's caused some trouble in his life. Once police caught him shoplifting cigarettes. Another time they warned him to stop beating up his girlfriend.

In the tumble-down trailer park where he lives, Emerson said a little trouble is the only thing that makes life exciting. But his hazel eyes moved off the television when asked about charges that he burned St. John's Baptist Church.

"That's flat wrong," said Emerson, a tall, skinny boy whose mouth looks lopsided when he speaks because of teeth missing from one side. "I would never do something like that. I don't have any problems with blacks."

As law enforcement officials across the South struggle for answers to explain why more than 60 black churches have been burned in the last year and a half, they find themselves taking into custody aimless teen-agers like Emerson, who are looking for kicks. Nationally, very few arrests have been made of people who are members of white supremacy groups, making it harder for police to predict where and when the arson attacks will occur.

"The pattern to these crimes is that there is no pattern," said Robert Stewart, chief of the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). "There are a few cases where we can say definitively that race is the motive. But in most cases, it's not so clear-cut."

In South Carolina -- a mostly rural state that in 1990 had no cities with more than 100,000 people -- almost as many white churches have been attacked as black ones. Three white churches were struck by arsonists this year, and five black churches have been burned.

But an examination of the burnings at black and white churches in South Carolina is like comparing apples and oranges. White churches have suffered minimal damage, and members have resumed normal worship services.

Meanwhile, black congregations have seen buildings devastated by fire. They are divided about whether to move their churches out of rural communities where their families have lived for generations.

"We're heartbroken," said the Rev. Aiken R. Ruth of Barnwell, S.C., of the April arson attack on his Rosemary Baptist Church. "People are used to coming here and feeling as safe and comfortable as they do in their own homes. Now we can't feel that way here."

Compared to other states, arson hasn't been much of a problem in South Carolina. The state arson rate in 1994 was less than half the national average, according to the most recent records available from the FBI.

That makes the high number of black churches burned in South Carolina more unusual. Of the 65 black churches burned across the South since 1995, 12 were located in South Carolina.

State law enforcement officials have arrested 11 people in connection with the burnings. Eight of the people arrested are under the age of 18.

NB Emerson, free from jail on $10,000 bail, is a typical example.

'They all hate me'

Police say there appear to be many forces that drove Emerson, his 19-year-old brother, Roger, and a friend named James Brenner, 17, to burn down St. John's Baptist Church last year. They believe that the boys burned down the church more out of boredom than deep-seated racism.

But local law enforcement officials have forwarded the case to federal civil rights investigators for review.

St. John's, built by slaves in 1858, was completely destroyed in the attack. All that remains is the frame of the front door.

"I know that those boys set out to burn that church down and that's what they did," said Sheriff James R. Metts of Lexington County.

"But exactly why they did it, I don't know."

In his first interview since he was released from jail, Emerson denied that he helped burn down St. John's.

The son of a carpenter and a school bus driver, he grew up without much money.

Wearing baggy denim jeans that droop off his waist and a baseball hat with the brim to the side of his head, Emerson fidgets as he talks. He explains that he may not have much of an education, but his family was in church most Sundays.

There, he says, he learned respect for the house of the Lord and for all people, no matter the color of their skin.

That is why, he said, he feels contempt for the Klan.

"They have meetings all the time in the woods back there," he said, pointing out the window. "But I don't listen to anything they say. Once they was having a rally and I ran over to them and tore up their signs."

He added, "Fact is, they all hate me because I have more black friends than white."

With that, his mother, a short, pale woman with matted red hair, rushed to the back of the house and returned with several school portraits of black teen-agers.

"These are all his friends," said Mary Emerson. "You can ask any one of them, and they'll tell you my kids ain't racist."

Her husband, William Emerson, agreed. But, with a deep sigh, he said, "The problem with my boys is that they were with the wrong people at the wrong time. I told them that their friends were nothing but trouble.

.' "But they don't listen to me."

Range of motives

Most of those arrested for burning churches in South Carolina are under 18, according to state law enforcement officials. Some of the accused had deep emotional troubles. Other fires were caused by kids being kids.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, four children under the age of 12 were charged with arson for playing with matches and setting the carpet on fire at the New St. Paul Apostolic Church.

At the other end of the spectrum, a 15-year-old youth was sentenced to serve an unspecified amount of time a juvenile detention center for setting fire to a storage shed at La Luz del Mundo, an Hispanic church whose name means "Light of the World." Police said that the young arsonist made a statement saying that he didn't want Mexicans moving into his neighborhood.

Obscure motives

In other arson attacks, racial hatred is more difficult to detect.

On a single night in April, arsonists attacked three churches on a little-traveled stretch of Route 300 in a community of farmers and factory workers an hour south of Columbia.

All of the Barnwell churches date to the 1800s. All have congregations of 30 to 60 people whose families have worshiped there for generations. The churches share the same architecture: flat, square buildings with steeples. Each is surrounded by the graves of founding members.

But that is where the similarities end. Members at two churches -- Mt. Olivet Baptist Church and Allen's Chapel Baptist Church -- are white. The damage done by arsonists to those churches amounted to about $2,500 to repair the air conditioning at one and to wash the soot off the front doors at the other.

The third church, Rosemary Baptist, is black. Its sanctuary was destroyed. Only the stained glass windows remain to indicate it was once a place of worship.

Walking through the rubble, the preacher, Ruth, 72, stopped in front of a platform with a burst of black soot at its center.

"That's where they set the fire," he said, his voice cracking. "Right there. They broke into the church, poured fuel all over everything and lit it up like it was nothing."

Ruth pulled out a business card signed by the county sheriff. It had been left inside his door that morning by Sheriff Joey Zorn, to let the preacher know that deputies had checked on the church the previous evening.

A vote to move

But increased patrols do not make the congregation feel safer. Members of the church voted to move Rosemary Baptist to a more populated part of town.

The mood at the two white churches is different. Members of the congregations say they are upset about the arson attempts, but they are unafraid that the attacks will continue.

They can't help but notice how little damage was done to their churches and how great the damage was to Rosemary Baptist. But, they say, they are sure that the attack was not fueled by racism.

The Rev. Henry Propst, 75, the minister at Allen's Chapel, invited members of Rosemary Baptist to worship at his church. He also said that if they preferred, Rosemary members could use the sanctuary for their own services.

"If there is racism here, it is only in the hearts of a few individuals," said Propst.

"All I can say is that when it comes to black churches, whoever is doing the burnings gets the job done," Ruth counters.

A loss of identity

Members of St. John's Baptist Church, which burned to the ground last year, understand the pain of such destruction.

The church's head deacon, Willie Simmons, 57, said he has lost not only his second home, but an integral part of his identity.

He explained that to help his family survive, he quit school in the seventh grade and worked odd jobs until he got hired at a plant that crushes old cars.

Advancing at work seemed impossible to him. But at St. John's, he could fulfill his desires to be important.

"In church, I took care of the people, the young and the old," he said, standing in the field of towering oak trees where St. John's once stood.

"I helped with all kinds of problems. When their kids was bad or they was fighting with their wife, they called me. If they needed money, I would go and give them what I could."

Pointing out to the field as if St. John's was still there, the father of five said, "I also took care of my own family at that church. When my boys would get in trouble, I'd go and get them out of jail and then set their feet back on the ground right there."

Attacks on St. John's were not new. For the last 10 years, St.

John's was ravaged by vandalism. Dozens of teen-agers would converge on the church at Halloween, spurred by rumors that the church was haunted. The teens would ransack the sanctuary and cemetery.

A few times, Klan symbols were spray-painted on the church's doors and pews.

Several years ago, the police set up Halloween stakeouts at the church. More than 200 teen-agers have been arrested since 1985.

When asked who he thinks burned down St. John's, Simmons said, "I knew deep inside that it wasn't done by the Klan. I knew that it was teen-agers because that's whose been bothering our church for years."

'We'll rebuild'

The congregation at St. John's has almost raised enough money to begin rebuilding.

Until then, 10 to 15 members meet every other Sunday in the living room of Simmons' trailer. At the service last Sunday, one member presented a hand-stitched banner that says "St. John's Church" inside.

"I know this old house don't look like much," Simmons told the group.

"But it's free to St. John's for as long as needed. God willing, we'll rebuild St. Johns, bigger and better than ever."

Church burning in South Carolina

Seventeen churches have burned in South Carolina since the beginning of 1995. Nationally, people under age 18 are responcible for the majority of all arson fires. The number of church arsons and total arsons has been declining since 1980


1. La Luz del Mundo,

Walhalla. Burned April 15, '95

2. Summer Grove Baptist,

White Pond. Burned May 20, '95

3. Mount Zion AME,

Greeleyville. Burned June 20, '95

4. Macedonia Baptist,

Bloomville. Burned June 22, '95

5. St. John Baptist,

Dixiana. Burned Aug. 15, '95

6. Islamic Center Mosque,*

Greenville. Burned Oct. 31, '95

7. Mount Hill Missionary Baptist,

Montmorenci. Burned Dec. 1, '95

8. United Mission Apostolic,

Florence. Burned Dec. 30, '95

9. St Paul AME Zion,

Harleyville. Burned Jan. 25, '96

10. Butler Chapel AME,

Orangeburg. Burned March 31, '96

11. Allen's Chapel Baptist,

Barnwell. Burned April 13, '96

12. Mount Olivet Baptist,

Barnwell. Burned April 13, '96

13. Rosemary Baptist,

Barnwell. Burned April 13, '96

14. Effingham Baptist,

Effingham. Burned April 26, '96

15. Convent Baptist,

Lexington. Burned May 22, '96

16. New St. Paul's Apostolic,

Florence. Burned June 11, '96

17. Life Christian Assembly,

Charleston. Burned June 17, '96

* African-American congregation

** Fires classified as "incendiary and suspicious fires in churches and related properties'

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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