Man arrested on suspicion of arson in fire that destroyed historic church in South LA

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A man was arrested Sunday on suspicion of arson after a fire destroyed South Los Angeles’ historic Victory Baptist Church last week and injured three firefighters, authorities said.

The fire broke out at 2:22 a.m. on Sept. 11 in the 4800 block of South McKinley Avenue and grew into a major emergency, requiring 16 businesses to respond, according to Nicholas Prange, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Fire Department.

After receiving reports of smoke from the church, crews found heavy smoke inside, allowing more air to enter and exacerbating the fire, according to a department press release.

Investigators from the Arson and Counterterrorism Division and detectives from the Los Angeles School Police Department have arrested 23-year-old Carlos Diaz in South LA, authorities said. He was charged with arson after firefighters launched an investigation and viewed security footage, authorities said.

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Three firefighters were injured while fighting the blaze, which lasted at least two hours, Prange said. One was caught by a collapsing ceiling and walls in the church.

A crew member was taken to a hospital in a moderate condition; another continued to work on the fire and was hospitalized in fair condition after the flames were put down. After the incident, a third firefighter sought treatment for minor injuries.

Founded in 1943 by Arthur Peters, the church became a destination for civil rights activists, gospel singers, and church members.

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“This is a terrible loss,” historian Tyree Boyd-Pates said. “It’s hard to digest, given the role of the church in Los Angeles, especially for African Americans who moved here during the Great Migration of the 1940s.”

The church was originally located at 42nd Street and Wadsworth Avenue, according to the website. As the congregation grew, it moved to its current location at East 48th Street and McKinley in 1944.

It gained national fame in 1950, when the Sunday evening services were televised. The 75-strong choir, the Voices of Victory, also attracted a following. The choir has featured celebrated vocalists and composers over the years, including Mahalia Jackson, Jester Hairston, the Clara Ward Singers, Ethel Waters and Dorothy Maynor.

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The church became involved in the civil rights movement, holding fundraisers and encouraging voter registration. Rev Martin Luther King Jr. was the guest speaker at the celebration of the church’s 24th anniversary.

Peters was murdered in September 1975; his successor, the Rev. Charles Chapman, was elected pastor a year later. He resigned in 1993 and was replaced in 1995 by Pastor W. Edward Jenkins.

Jenkins said that although the building has been destroyed, the church lives on.

“The church is not dead. The Church is doing well,” Jenkins said. “The building is in ruins, but we are going to rebuild it.”

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