Three years after closing its doors, St. Joseph Catholic School in Tuskegee, Alabama, burned to the ground on Thursday, shocking the community and depriving the city of one of its most treasured Black history landmarks.
A preliminary review from local officials indicates the blaze may have been caused by a lightning strike during an early morning storm. No injuries were reported.
“According to the National Weather Service, there were lightning strikes during the period of time in which the fire ensued,” said Frank H. Lee, director of the Macon County Emergency Management Agency and Macon County Homeland Security.
Initial reports noted that a St. Joseph Catholic Church was destroyed, but the nearby Black parish of that name was not damaged. A school was established in the original church building in 1945, before the new parish edifice was built.
St. Joseph's pastor, Fr Mateusz Rudzik, noted to BCM that the lightning strike is believed to have hit the former church building, which had been used as the St. Joseph Parish Hall. A nearby rectory and former convent were also damaged. Other school buildings were untouched.
Founded by the Wisconsin-based Dominican Sisters of Sinsinawa, St. Joseph Catholic School began operations during Jim Crow, when Black children in the Deep South were typically denied entry into public and private schools where White students attended. The Dominicans originally opened a catechetical center at St. Joseph Catholic Church before transitioning to a full-fledged school.
Princess McEvilley had recently been planning a birthday celebration on the former church and school grounds for her mother Alice Powell, who serves as an administrative assistant at St. Joseph Church.
“I was devastated when I got the pictures from my brother as it was burning,” she told BCM.
Throughout its history, St. Joseph's School educated local African-American children regardless of their religious affiliation, leaving a lasting impact in the larger region.
“A lot of people came through that school. I always went back even after it closed and would visit and just walk around. Lots of wonderful memories,” said Joseph Dix, an athletics coach who graduated from the school, which served grades K-8.
Dix told BCM he was “sad and sorry to hear” about the fire from his sister, who also attended St Joseph's. They were not members of the parish, but Dix says he had long volunteered in liturgical ministry as a child.
“I served as an altar boy from third grade all the way through high school even after I graduated from there in 1985. It was a great place to go to school.”
Following an unsuccessful community-led fundraiser, the Archdiocese of Mobile closed St. Joseph’s School in the spring of 2020, following declines in enrollment and mounting financial struggles.
Archbishop Thomas Rodi noted at the time that the school had “provided generations of young people with an excellent academic and spiritual foundation.”
Local news reports this week noted that the building was later used by various other schools and organizations following the closure.
Thursday’s fire, believed to have begun around 7am CT, was responded to by the Tuskegee Fire Department. Chief Willie Smith announced it had been extinguished by the late afternoon.
As of Thursday evening, the fire was still under investigation by the Alabama State Fire Marshal's Office, of which Smith is the local head in Tuskegee. He was unable to be reached for comment.
Correction 6/16/23: A previous version of this story stated that the fire occurred on Wednesday. We regret the error.
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.