A fire in Winona

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On the evening of July 25, the Winona, Mississippi, home of Pastor Nelson Forrest caught fire. Nelson was the only one home at the time. He woke up when he heard a loud noise, his wife, Maggie, told us recently. He thought someone might be trying to break in. Then the smoke alarm went off, and he saw flames. Nelson escaped the house unharmed.

An investigator from the fire department deemed the cause of the blaze "unknown." The house wasn't salvageable and had to be torn down, though fortunately the Forrests have fire insurance. While certainly traumatic for Nelson and Maggie, the fire wouldn't be of wider public interest except for the timing.

Four days before the fire, Nelson Forrest had delivered an impassioned eulogy at the funeral of Lola Flowers. Lola's son Curtis has been incarcerated since 1997 for murdering four people at Tardy Furniture. Lola had always believed that Curtis was innocent and so do many others in Winona's black community.

In his eulogy, Forrest implored people in Winona to stand up to injustice. "Sick and tired of scared folks," he'd intoned that day. "Jesus didn't die on no cross for you to be scared. He wasn't scared. What are you scared of? You stand for what's right."

The fire at his house just days later may simply have been a coincidence of timing. But some people in Winona don't see it that way. There is a perception in town that fires have been set to intimidate black residents in the past. In the early 1970s, during school integration, the former black school, J.J. Knox School, burned down, and many residents in Winona still believe it was arson. In 1999, just before Curtis' second trial, the Flowers' home caught fire too. Investigators later ruled the fire accidental. But the perception persists among some in town that the blaze was set as retribution for the Flowers speaking out about Curtis' case.

The fire at the Forrests' house heavily damaged the roof, sections of which collapsed into the living room.

In deeming the origin of the fire unknown, investigators are not ruling out arson or an accidental cause. And the cause may never be known. Brad Mooneyham, the Winona fire chief, said his department didn't investigate the fire. Small-town departments often ask the state fire marshal to assist with investigations. But the Winona department didn't request assistance on this case. Mooneyham wouldn't say why. He did say that he didn't think the fire was suspicious, but he wouldn't explain that, either.

For the moment, the Forrests have little recourse except to rebuild. Maggie said that's exactly what they're going to do.

"We've been in this house 36 years, 36 or 37. And we never imagined a fire," she said. "And you just feel like, part of you gone. I mean this was our memories, this was our stuff. I know it was paid for, bought and paid for. For it to go, you have to start all over again."

Asked if her husband would be any less outspoken, she said, "No, he's always been that way."

The second season of the In the Dark podcast is about the case of Curtis Flowers, who was tried six times for the same crime. Learn more.

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