The Burned Black Church: A US Icon

Anthropology/Religion/African American Studies/City and Regional Studies/ Urban Planning/History

The purpose of this research is to study the contemporary significance of black church arsons in the United States. Though black church burnings are associated with a deep history of US racism and the legal arena of hate crimes, this ethnographic research seeks to examine the significance of black church arson from the perspective of African American congregants and community members. Set in Knoxville, Tennessee; Springfield, Massachusetts; and St. Louis, Missouri, this research studies how congregants describe their impressions of black church arson, who and what social forces they understand to be responsible for church arson, and the impact of church arson on black church communities and neighborhoods. It also explores the perspectives of artists, local community organizers, and clergy. Though this research emphasizes the viewpoints and experiences of black congregants, this research endeavors to uncover the American story of black church arson and what it reveals about the historical and contemporary connections of religion, race, and sacred space.

Research partners will have the opportunity to work on an exploration of a social problem that has deep historical and contemporary resonance. They will also be able to participate in forming an archive that catalogues the occurrences of black church arson across US history. It is my hope that research partners’ participation in the project will spark or feed their own research interests.

Black church burnings are a national problem. While as a primary researcher I can collect local perspectives on arson, telling a national story of black church arson requires a collaborative research team. Independent research or study experience recommended. Work in reviewing archival sources (journalistic or government files) is particularly helpful.