by Paul Bowers
Two Charleston churches in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination and another area church with African-American roots have reported suspicious activity on their property in the past week, according to incident reports filed by the Charleston Police Department and Charleston County Sheriff's Office.
On Fri. July 17 at about 6:40 p.m., police were dispatched to St. Phillip AME Church at 2861 Ashley River Road in West Ashley "in reference to suspicious activity," according to an incident report. At the scene, someone from the church told the officers that sometime between Tues. July 14 and that day, someone had tampered with the church's sign that faces the road.
The report states that someone "changed the letters around from a positive community message to a hateful message," but it does not state what the sign said. Staff at St. Phillip AME chould not be reached for comment today.
The report from St. Phillip AME came on the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. Predominantly African-American churches in the South have reported numerous security concerns since the shooting, which left nine people dead. Charleston's Morris Brown AME Church received two bomb threats within two days after the shooting, and at least six African-American churches have burned since the shooting, although investigators have ruled out arson in many of the cases.
On Wed. July 22 at 11 a.m., police responded to Bethel AME Church at 1827 Central Park Road on James Island in response to a report of vandalism. A man told the officers that when he arrived at the church that morning to turn on the air conditioning, he walked into the sanctuary and saw broken glass on the floor and what appeared to be bullet holes in a window. He said he had previously entered the church on Monday but had not entered the sanctuary, so he was not certain when the window was broken.
Rev. Myra Meggett told police that no one had been in the sanctuary since the church's worship service ended on Sunday. She estimated the window would cost $4,000 to replace and mentioned that someone had broken a window at the church by throwing rocks at it a few years ago.
A press release from the police department indicates that there were four holes in the window facing Central Park Road. "It appears the damage was from gunshots," the release says. "The church was unoccupied when this incident occurred and no other vandalism was done to the church."
Police canvassed the neighborhood near the church to gather information. Officers are also patrolling the area during services at the church, according to the press release.
Today at 9:30 a.m., Charleston County Sheriff's Office deputies responded to a report of vandalism from a church caretaker at James Island United Congregational Church at 1890 Central Park Ave. According to a press release from the Sheriff's Office, "it obviously appeared that someone had vandalized the church by gun fire." Deputies found several bullet holes in various parts of the outside of the church.
The Sheriff's Office says that it is "working in concert with other law enforcement agencies, including the FBI," in its investigation of the incident. James Island United Congregational Church, while not a member of the AME denomination, also has roots in the African-American community. The church's founding pastor, the Rev. Hercules Champaign, previously served in the predominantly black Reformed Methodist Union Episcopal denomination, which was founded by freed African Americans in the wake of the U.S. Civil War.
James Island United Congregational Church previously made the news in 2007 when the Rev. Champaign's nephew, firefighter Melvin Champaign, died fighting the Sofa Superstore fire. The church entered the public spotlight again in 2013 when its organist, neighborhood handyman Derryl Drayton, was shot dead by sheriff's deputies after officers say he resisted arrest and cut a deputy in the leg with a knife.
If you have information about the incidents at Bethel AME or James Island United Congregational Church, the police department asks that you call Crime Stoppers at (843) 554-1111 or call Consolidated Dispatch at (843) 743-7200 and ask for the on-call Charleston Police Department detective.
In another incident on Mon. July 20, a West Ashley man called police to report that someone had killed some patches of grass in his front yard to spell the letters KKK. The man, who is white, told police that "the grass looked as if it was dying in the morning before departing for work, and upon returning home he noticed the grass had died in the 'KKK' pattern," according to the report.
The police report states that neighbors said they had not seen any suspicious activity the previous few nights, and no vandalism was observed at other houses in the area. Fliers soliciting support for the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist terrorist group, have been distributed in West Ashley neighborhoods several times since 2012, including recently after the Emanuel AME shooting.