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Historic church destroyed by fire

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Jerusalem was settled by freed slaves. The church was turned into a community center. Jerusalem was settled by freed slaves. The church was turned into a community center.

by Rusty Surette, NEWS 9

JERUSALEM, Okla. -- A 102-year-old historic church in McClain County was destroyed by a fire Friday morning. 

The early morning blaze leveled the last standing structure on land settled in the late 18-hundreds by former slaves.

The fire that destroyed this piece of Oklahoma's history may be suspicious because the building didn't have gas or electrocity.

The church was converted into the Jerusalem community center and it was always open to strangers. Joel Bradford, the historic building's keeper, said it was always unlocked.

Bradford said the old church building was the one-stop shop for the history of this land.

"You've got pictures there, your pioneers, community trees, the history of where it started from and who was there," said Bradford.

He recieved the call Friday morning that the building he's worked on and maintained for years was on fire.

"I didn't have any idea of what to expect," Bradford said.

When he finally made it from his Oklahoma City home to this tiny town nestled between Washington and Goldsby, he saw billows of smoke.

The 82-year old said he's surprised his emotions haven't taken over.  It was Bradford's own family who joined others to settle on the 5-acres of land donated by the Chicksaw tribe to freed slaves. 

His connection here is what drives him to watch over the building, the land and the community.

"My only thought after I seen it was there are more people worse off than this," he said.

Investigators are still looking into what started the fire, but Bradford has a gut-feeling it was set.  He stops short of calling it a hate-crime.

"I'm not going to accuse anybody of something that I'm not sure of what happened," Bradford said.

Right now, he's focused on the future without forgetting the past.  He plans to rebuild with the help of others, the way his ancestors did it more than a century ago.

"I have a friend in Blanchard already raising money, so yes, there's so many people who want to help," said Bradford. "We're going to put a building there so a community can use it."

An annual celebration that honors the history of the black settlement is still scheduled for next weekend.  It will be held in the nearby town of Cole at its community center.

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