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A Town With 'Two of Everything'

When three black churches burned in Boligee, Ala., outside help quickly poured in. But blacks and whites in the town have stood more aloof, finding it hard to bridge a wide racial gulf.

Business is slowing back to normal at the only place to eat in town, the Boligee Cafe, an old wooden structure with fading white paint.

Johnnie Jackson, a member of one of three black churches that were burned here in December and January, can enjoy more time swinging on her screened-in porch, letting the phone ring when it's too hot or she's too tired to get up and answer it.

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And Mayor A. L. (Buddie) Lavender, the white mayor for the past 20 years in this mostly black town, has more time to work in his garden and feed the ducks in a pond across from his house, a couple of blocks from the cafe. He relished his more than 100 interviews with national and international reporters. But he's glad the visitors are gone.

Nationally, many white as well as black churches have been burned. Since 1990, some 250 have burned in the United States, half of them since January 1995, according to Jim Cavanaugh, a special agent-in-charge of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. There have been 83 arrests and 41 convictions, and various motives uncovered, some of them racial, he says.

But since three churches in Boligee have been destroyed - all of them black - the community has been exposed to an unusual amount of attention.

In the aftermath of the fires, heartwarming stories have emerged of the volunteer efforts of hundreds of whites and blacks from Alabama, other states, and several countries who have come here this summer to help rebuild the three black Baptist churches.

But what has also become apparent in the burn of media attention is the persistent divide between whites and blacks in Greene County, the poorest, smallest, and, many here say, most segregated county in the state.

Mistrust, segregation, feuding among black factions, and poverty are community problems that preceded the burnings - and they will need attention long after new churches are built and volunteers have left.

The county is 82 percent black, and with the exception of white mayors of Boligee and Eutaw, the county seat, most elected officials are African-Americans. The civil rights movement, however, appears to have changed little else.

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"Here, we have two of everything," says Deacon Henry Carter of the destroyed Little Zion Church.

In practice, if no longer in law, Greene County has a black and a white newspaper, a black bank and a white bank, a black public swimming pool, a predominately white public pool, an all-white private country club, black public schools, and a private all-white academy. Funeral homes and cemeteries are racially separate. Some doctors' offices still have separate waiting rooms.

At the Boligee Cafe, blacks sit at the table to the right of the door and whites to the left. They both eat in the cafe's air-conditioned room, although usually at separate tables.

Except for the tiny, 30-member Roman Catholic church, houses of worship remain racially divided. "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week," says Booker Cooke, chief of staff of the Greene County Board of Commissioners.

Dedication services at the Mt. Zion church will be held on Sept. 1, and at Mt. Zoar and Little Zion on Sept. 8 and 15, respectively.

Rebuilding, renewing

"We're not running short of volunteers," says Harold Confer, executive director of Washington Quaker Workcamps, which is helping rebuild two of the local churches and another in nearby Greensboro, Ala. The Mennonites are rebuilding the third Boligee church.

"The local churches have learned ... they are really a part of a body not only of Christians, but non-Christians" says Mr. Confer. Jews have joined Christians of many denominations in the work.

A message from Boligee to the United States and beyond, adds Confer, is this: "The burning of the churches in Boligee is the burning of a church in San Francisco or Detroit, and we will not tolerate it."

Both black and white local residents have expressed appreciation for the volunteers, Confer adds. "At the check-out lines, the bank, the post office, people have come up to us and said: "God bless you."

Volunteers worked with local black contractors and attended the services of the churches in their temporary locations.

Neither white residents - until recently - nor local black church members helped in the work, though the members of one burned church, Little Zion Baptist, served full daily lunches to the volunteers.

Mayor Lavender says some white firms outside Boligee were willing to donate some materials and felt shut out of the reconstruction process when their offers were not taken up by those organizing the reconstruction.

And the level of mistrust between blacks and whites, and among blacks themselves, has increased over competition to raise funds for church rebuilding.

Within sight of Mrs. Jackson's porch, on a dirt road, a group of black teenagers were talking in the back of a pickup truck.

Until then, no reporter had spoken with them, they said, though federal agents had interviewed them and others about the church burnings.

"I leave for the Army in August, to get away from here," says one of the youths, John Head, who started working at the greyhound racetrack in Eutaw in March. "Stay around here, you get in trouble."

Airing the issues

On July 2, the US Civil Rights Commission held a public hearing in Boligee. "Most people haven't looked at the communities where they [the fires] are taking place," chairman Mary Francis Berry says.

Five more hearings in the South were planned for July. Ms. Berry says she hopes the hearings will "focus attention on the continuing need to improve race relations throughout the country."

Boligee has a long past. Descendants of former slave owners and of former slaves live here. Blacks used to do the cotton picking; farmers used to farm with mules.

What a visitor today might see as lack of progress is viewed differently by some blacks with a knowledge of the past.

"I lived through hard times," says the Rev. W.D. Lewis, the pastor of Little Zion Baptist Church, who was born at the turn of the century. "Once I ate parched corn; now I eat much more," he said at a recent revival at another church his congregation is using temporarily.

But whites and blacks just don't mix, says a member of the all-white Friendship Baptist Church.

The county "is segregated, but by choice," says H.O. Kirksey, a local black resident and a leader of Citizens for a Better Greene County, a group of whites and blacks with the aim of racial reconciliation.

To a degree, Boligee's segregation is common nationally, says Lamar Washington, executive director of the State of Alabama branch of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, who attended the hearing. "We still have basically segregated educational systems in a lot of places, not only in Alabama."

Pinpointing the problem

Two other local speakers at the hearing, one black, one white, argued that race relations are not the main problem in Boligee. "Only racial tensions are being reported. We do not have a problem between black and whites," Lavender said.

But he went on to charge, to the applause of one person, his wife, that whites are not given a fair chance at jobs in the black-run school system.

And he countered the idea that whites had left the school because blacks were there. "They left due to poor quality," he insisted, noting that middle-class blacks had left as well.

Mr. Kirksey raised another point. "Our problem is not interracial, but intraracial. Our problems are black against black."

According to one black community leader, at least five black political factions vie with each other. Though whites still hold most economic power, blacks hold all but a couple of the elected offices. And the black-run county electoral system is under scrutiny by the FBI for alleged fraudulent use of absentee ballots.

But splits in the black community go deeper than political alignments. According to several residents, there is also mistrust and jealousy among segments of the black community, including within some of the black churches. And it appears to be getting worse.

Several deacons of the burned black churches were co-signatories on a reconstruction fund-raising bank account begun by Lavender. He shows visitors the signatory document and piles of checks he continues to receive.

The ministers of the three burned churches have signed onto another account, coordinated by them and Spiver Gordon, a black city-council member in Eutaw and area representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, a civil rights organization. Lavender and Mr. Gordon are political adversaries.

"We had a wonderful opportunity for some healing" after the burnings, Lavender said at the hearing. "That did not happen."

But there are encouraging signs for the future. A new auto-parts assembly plant under construction in town will provide jobs to some residents. Several blacks and whites plan to meet Aug. 8 under the guidance of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights. And a few white residents have been showing up at the Mt. Zion Baptist Church to lend a hand.

Helping out

Members of the white Friendship Baptist Church donated $100 to their state Baptist organization toward rebuilding costs. It's not much, but it puts members on the side of the fence that says the burnings were wrong.

And at noon each day at the Little Zion work site, a cadre of ladies and small children arrives bearing fried chicken, corn bread, greens, and other fixings. While the 40-odd volunteers and local workers fill their plates, the women sing gospel songs.

In the shadow of the nearly completed church, guitarist Terry Barnes sings an Appalachian hymn, "It you think He's just a carpenter, then look at what He built," to which the women responded with the gospel, "When all God's children get together, what a time."

On Sundays, volunteers don dresses and dress shirts to worship with the tiny congregations from Mt. Zion and Little Zion. "You can't imagine walking into your Sunday school and seeing 15 blacks and 25 different white people, all feeling the same holy spirit," Mt. Zion Deacon Charlie Means says. "I can do nothing but thank God that I'm alive in 1996 to see this happen."

There is an untapped reservoir of goodwill among some whites and blacks. "I wouldn't mind having a white friend," says Mr. Head, a teen from Boligee. But whites and blacks don't have contact with each other, he adds.

Mrs. Jackson says she wishes there were more bridges between whites and blacks, comparing the races to "two ships which pass in the night." But, she adds, "Some of the ships are meeting," referring to one of the summer's most popular "volunteers," Kelly O'Foran, the four-year-old daughter of Shelly and Norman O'Foran, of College Park, Md.

While her parents took up hammer and nails, Kelly, who is white, played with the black children of the members of Little Zion. At one lunch, Jackson recalls, Kelly said: " 'Johnnie, will you come sit on the blanket with me?' Imagine me sitting on the blanket: I couldn't get up. She came over and sat with me."

That's the kind of barrier-breaking the county needs, she says. "[Kelly] made a great impact on everyone."

Whatever the outcome of the investigations, Reverend Lewis says, "If the person who did this came here, I would forgive them." Later he told his congregation, "This is not a time to hate."

Martha Honey contributed to this report.

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