BOLIGEE, ALA. — On a country road in western Alabama, Henry Carter stands in front of the site where generations of his family attended Sunday services and chokes up. The red-brick church - Little Zion Baptist - burned to the ground last January. Though it has taken an emotional toll on Mr. Carter, what touches him now are the donations and letters that are coming in from around the world.
"One lady wrote and said, 'I heard about your situation, and it just worries me. I have only $100, but use it in the Lord's name,' " Carter says. "When I read that, it just penetrated right through me."
Little Zion was one of three black churches torched last winter in Boligee, a town of 300 in Alabama's rural "black belt" - named for its rich soil. While much of the nation's attention has focused on the church burnings themselves, blacks and whites of all faiths have quietly been coming together to rebuild these charred sanctuaries. Volunteers from as far away as Canada are making the pilgrimage to communities across the South to wield hammers and saws, and thousands of dollars in donations and reward money have been raised.
For many townspeople, the rebuilding represents as much a spiritual process of renewal as a physical one. It also sends, intended or not, an indelible message: That the communities won't be bowed by the apparent racist motives behind the burnings.
Amid the ashes
The rebuilding effort is in high gear in Boligee, where the sound of hammers, drills, and workers punctuate the stillness of a steamy June afternoon.
Here at Little Zion Baptist Church, which has about 65 members, parishioners and a handful of Quakers from Washington, D.C., are constructing a new church on top of the ashes of the old site. A wooden frame and roof are already up, and members plan to have it ready for services in late August.
Several miles away, along desolate roads lined with Queen Anne's lace, a group of Mennonites from Canada and the Midwest have set up mobile homes and a work site where Mount Zoar Baptist Church once stood. The workers are part of the Mennonite Disaster Service. They will work through the summer. So far, they've poured a concrete foundation. Work is also about to begin nearby on the third church - Mount Zion Baptist Church.
The fires, like many others at churches across the South, happened in the darkness of night. At Little Zion, a man saw orange flames piercing the black sky as he was heading home, says the Rev. Woodson Lewis, who has been pastor here since 1950. "Nobody was up here, no one knew about it" until it was too late, Mr. Lewis says.
Authorities have no suspects in any of the three fires, two of which occurred on the same day. Both black and white residents remain puzzled as well. Race relations are harmonious, many say. And there is no sign of any hate groups. In fact, Greene County where Boligee is located, experienced little of the racial turmoil that seethed close by in parts of Alabama and neighboring Mississippi during the civil-rights era. The Ku Klux Klan was not active, there were few protests or beatings of blacks, and no churches were burned.
Today about 11,000 people live in Greene County, and more than 70 percent are black. The county is the smallest in the state and the second poorest. Most whites reside in Eutaw, the county seat, which is about 10 miles from Boligee. At one time plantations covered the area, and slaves labored in the cotton fields. Some farming of cotton, peanuts, corn, and cattle still goes on, but not to the extent it did.
"Most everyone gets along good," says Marian McGee, a white woman standing on the porch of a pale blue house as foals frolic in her fenced backyard. "A lot of people think some blacks are behind it," she says. "We just don't know. We do wish it would stop. People are sick."
Many blacks suspect someone from outside the county set the fires. But they say whoever it was had to know the locations of the churches because they're so isolated in the rolling countryside.
Despite the speculation, folks here say the community has been working together to rebuild. Three funds have been set up for donations, and so far, about $135,000 have poured in. Local whites have taken up collections in their own Sunday services. Both blacks and whites across the country have sent checks. Some local whites have helped clean up the church sites and volunteered to help with construction. Women of both races bring lunches of homemade ham sandwiches and fried chicken to workers.
The churches that burned have a long history. Little Zion, which sits atop a little hill, is about 200 years old, Lewis says. It was believed to have been started by slaves who worked on the land. The church took several forms - a log cabin, a frame structure, and a brick building.
"My father, mother, grandfather, and great grandmother are all buried over there," says Carter, who points to a small cemetery shaded by oak trees. "This was a church we loved very dearly."
Though the churches have held services elsewhere and will again open their doors, the temporary shutdown has been a great loss to the black community.
"You have to understand the church is the heart and soul of black folks' very existence," says Spiver Gordon, a city councilman in Eutaw and head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Greene County. "When we're depressed, hungry, tired, we go to our church and pastor. That's where life begins. Sunday is homecoming, and people come from everywhere."
The black church has also been an important political tool for some politicians. "It's been a powerful force in African-American life - so powerful that former Gov. George Wallace ... made a concerted effort to go after the black vote in black churches in the 1982 governor's primary," says Tennant McWilliams, a professor of history at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. "And he carried the black vote."
In a few months, members will again be able to worship at their churches, if construction stays on schedule. In the meantime, some are taking precautions. Little Zion Baptist Church has hired a local man to watch the half-constructed church for $20 a night. "I hope they find out who's done this because it needs to come to an end," Carter says.
Still, he says, the burnings have unified the tiny community: "I sometimes think this [burning] happened because maybe the Lord wants to bring us together and show that people care."