JACKSON, Miss. — Authorities investigating the burning of a historically black church in Mississippi on Tuesday night also found "Vote Trump" spray painted on the side.
Mayor Errick D. Simmons called the attack on Hopewell Missionary Baptist Church in Greenville, Miss., "a heinous, hateful and cowardly act," which is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
Greenville, a city of 32,156, according to the Census' 2015 estimates, is about 120 miles northwest of Jackson, Miss.
“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.”
The FBI was notified of the burning, which also is 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 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.”
Greenville 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. CT and found 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. Carolyn 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 N-word 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."
“The people in Greenville are resilient people,” he said.
A GoFundMe page was created to raise money for the church. The $10,000 goal was surpassed in four hours. As of Wednesday evening, $72,866 was raised.
“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.”
Last year, there were several fires at predominantly black churches in Southern states in the wake of the shooting rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in June. Nine people were killed. The trial for the suspect in that case, Dylann Roof, is scheduled to begin Monday.
Contributing: Rick Jervis, USA TODAY. Follow Jerry Mitchell on Twitter: @JMitchellNews