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Fire At 114-Year-Old Harlem Baptist Church, Relic Of Kansas City's Past, Investigated As Arson

The interior of Harlem Baptist Church received significant fire, smoke and water damage following a blaze there Saturday morning. Authorities estimate there was $90,000 to $100,000 in damages.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The interior of Harlem Baptist Church received significant fire, smoke and water damage following a blaze there Saturday morning. Authorities estimate there was $90,000 to $100,000 in damages.

Federal authorities said Monday that the fire at the Harlem Baptist Church was “intentionally set” but they don’t believe it was a hate crime.

Across the charred pile of rubble from the roof, beyond the boarded-up stained glass windows, Sheila Jones stood near the altar of the Harlem Baptist Church on Monday and wondered if the last surviving building in the old river town would survive this latest disaster.

Over its 114 years, the church has withstood floods and a fleeing flock, and today it’s largely attended by Sudanese immigrants. A fire last Saturday gutted the front of the church and left half of its eight stained glass windows shattered.

Jones, whose father’s family grew up in Harlem, was thinking about how much of her family’s history took place here, like when her Aunt Gwen was married at the church. Jones’ father, Floyd, founded Jones Iron and Metal across the street from the church 60 years ago.

Floyd E. Jones, 83, passed away in April, and his daughter said she was having a hard time Monday separating her feelings about her dad and the church. One of Sheila Jones’ jobs as the CEO of Jones Iron and Metal is holding the keys to the church.

“This is really hard on the surviving elders,” she said. “Do I want to see it come down? No. Does it need to come down? Probably.”

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the blaze as a “set fire,” and accelerant dogs were used, said John Ham, an ATF spokesman. But investigators don’t believe it was a hate crime, he said.

“There’s absolutely no indication to us at all that the fire has anything to do with the congregation,” Ham said.

Despite the stinging acrid air inside the church, Jones was meeting with workers in hopes of salvaging the windows and a plaque dedicated to someone named Louise Reed, who no one remembers anymore.

Jones believes the fire was set by a homeless person, as homeless encampments are nearby. Four cans of chafing heat were found at the church on Monday and Jones speculated that people could have been cooking there. The front door of the church was open when firefighters arrived, Ham said, and it appears the fire may have been set in a stairway leading to the basement.

This is a 1907 sketch of what was then called the Harlem Tabernacle.
Jason Withington
This is a 1907 sketch of what was then called the Harlem Tabernacle.

Once, Harlem was a thriving town. It was founded in 1822 north of the Missouri River, where steamboats would land and ferries carried passengers across the river to a place that later became Kansas City, but it wasn’t incorporated for another three decades. The ferryboats became extinct when the Hannibal Bridge was opened in 1869, and major floods in 1844, 1903, 1951, and 1993 scared many residents away.

The first settlers to Harlem were Germans who came over from the Netherlands. They named the town after a city in the Netherlands, the same as the Harlem neighborhood in New York City. Now a sign marks the spot, just east of the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, but the onetime population of hundreds of residents, as well as their homes, grocery stores, schools and other pieces of the town, are long gone.

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Jason Withington, 38, was baptized at the Harlem Baptist Church, tucked in an old river town north of downtown Kansas City, Missouri.

Jason Withington, 38, was baptized in the church and is one of the town’s leading advocates. His grandparents began attending church services here in the 1940s, so many of his family’s big events were held here, he said. When he first heard the church was on fire on Saturday, it was his worst nightmare, he said.

“People need to know that this is not just, you know, some forgotten place. It has a lot of historical value to it,” Withington said. “It used to have a courthouse. It used to have a school, used to have a constable, a post office, a semi-pro baseball team.”

Since no one owns the church, it’s hard to say what will happen to it, he said. Fire investigators estimated the damage could reach between $90,000 and $100,000, but Jones believes it’s more like $200,000.

Withington would love to see Harlem, which is now considered part of downtown Kansas City, developed into a mixed-use area with retail and residential housing.

“As a kid, I started coming to church with my grandparents and then all the old timers would share the history and their stories with me,” he said. “I like history and I just have a deep appreciation for it and fell in love with the community.”

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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