Authorities investigating a historically black church burned Tuesday night in Greenville also found “Vote Trump” spraypainted on the side.
Mayor Errick D. Simmons called the attack on the century-old Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church “a heinous, hateful and cowardly act,” which is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
“This act is a direct assault on people’s right to freely worship,” he said. “We will not rest until the culprit is found and fully prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
City officials said anyone with information about the fire should contact (662) 378-TIPS.
The FBI has been notified of the burning, which is also being investigated by the State Fire Marshal's office, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and local authorities.
“The FBI Jackson Division is aware of the situation in Greenville,” said spokesman Brett Carr, “and we are working with our local, state and federal law enforcement partners to determine if any civil rights crimes were committed.”
Police Chief Delando Wilson said investigators worked all night to collect evidence. “At this moment, they’re interviewing possible witnesses,” he said. “We don’t have any suspects at this time. We are talking to a person of interest.”
He knows of no surveillance video that might have captured images of those responsible.
Fire Chief Ruben Brown Sr. said they received a call at 9:16 p.m., finding the church engulfed in flames.
Hopewell received heavy water and smoke damage, he said. “The cause and origin of the fire is under investigation. Samples have been taken.”
The Rev. Carilyn F. Hudson, the pastor of Hopewell, said the congregation of 200 members plans to rebuild.
“Our hearts are broken, but we are not angry,” she said. “We are saddened, but we do know that all things work together for good to those that love the Lord.”
Simmons saw the burning as “an attack on the black church and the black community,” he said. “This happened in the ‘50s and the ‘60s. This should not happen in 2016.”
Asked about any previous vandalism, Simmons said the word “n-----“ had been scrawled in September on a boat ramp, which city workers painted over.
Despite this, the mayor said the racial climate in the river town remained good, pointing to a regular gathering of those crossing the color line to worship together each fifth Sunday on the levee.
“The only way to conquer hate is love,” he said. “We must show love, respect and dignity to each other.”
An online fund has been established to raise money for the church, telling readers, “Can we help show the world, the country, and most importantly, the churchgoers of Hopewell Baptist that we, as a society, are better than this? Please give.”
Frank Dean, who described himself as part of the “Trump cyber army,” said he believes no Trump supporter did this.
He said he is contributing to the rebuilding and believes many others will, too. “These people need a new church.”