Leaders vow to rebuild after fire guts historic church

Although the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Oakland remains intact, Pastor Rodney Smith shared in a TikTok video released on Facebook that a significant portion of it was lost.

Loading the player...

The pastor, congregation and community members promised to rebuild all they’d lost after a fire tore through the oldest Black church in California’s East Bay.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, no one was inside First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Oakland when flames engulfed it around 10:45 p.m. PST on Sunday. The fire attracted many firefighters who used at least three ladder trucks to spray water on the fire as it burned in the church’s upper area.

Although the structure, also known as FAME Oakland, remains intact, Pastor Rodney Smith shared in a TikTok video released on Facebook that a significant portion of it was lost.

First AME Church
Community members and others have vowed to come together to rebuild First African Methodist Episcopal Church in North Oakland, the oldest Black church in California’s East Bay, after a fire. (Photo: Screenshot/YouTube.com/KPIX CBS SF Bay Area)

“We have completely lost the interior of the church — it’s completely gutted,” Smith said, the Chronicle reported. “The only thing still standing at this point is the high walls.”

During a time when only white children could attend public schools in California, the church was the first school for people of color, a fact Smith emphasized in the video shot at the scene, according to CNN.

“First AME Church Oakland was educating Black people 20 years before we were able to get public education,” said Smith, CNN reported. “The church feeds the community, serves the community in every way.”

The fire destroyed the facility’s roof and upper story, but miraculously, according to the Chronicle, a cross in the church’s heart remained untouched.

Oakland Fire Department spokesperson Michael Hunt said the fire began on a porch entrance outside a kitchen that the congregation uses to provide around 300 meals a week to people who are hungry and homeless. The flames promptly ignited the roof once it had swept up to the eaves.

Tony Butts, who lives across from the church, reported seeing two men — one asleep and the other with a “torch” — on the porch where the fire began just before the building caught fire.

“He had it ignited,” Butts said, the Chronicle reported, “but I don’t know what his intention was.”

Members of Brookins AME Church in East Oakland welcomed Smith and other FAME elders for a special service late Monday morning. Around 100 people sang and prayed for them there, and Bishop Clement Fugh assured attendees that leaders would rebuild First AME.

The congregation launched a special collection, with many giving $100 or more to aid with the reconstruction of the destroyed church.

Smith noted that in the few hours after the fire, the entire city — churchgoers, clergy from neighboring churches and community members — reached out and visited to offer their assistance.

For decades, FAME Oakland, which opened its doors in 1858, remained the first and only Black church in Oakland, per the Online Archives of California.

Hunt and investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the cause of the fire remains under investigation.

Following the Brookins AME church service, Carroll Fife, an Oakland City Council member, shared that she intends to connect with Mayor Sheng Thao and her council colleagues to discuss maintaining the feeding programs at the church, which is in her district.

“It’s a big blow,” Fife said of the fire, the Chronicle reported. “It’s the oldest Black church in Oakland, the oldest in the East Bay. We want things to go on as normal. This church is a pillar in the community, and we want to preserve it.”

TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!