Society

The Shiloh Baptist Church Stampede of 1902

A simple error in hearing led to a horrendous stampede that claimed the lives of many and created utter chaos and confusion in a church building.

Shiloh Baptist Church

In the United States, many churches were established by free black individuals at the end of the 18th century, and became known as "black churches". Even after the abolition of slavery, the prevailing discriminatory attitudes across the United States actively discouraged black and white Americans from worshipping side by side in churches. The Shiloh Baptist Church is one of these places of worship and is located in Birmingham in the US state of Alabama. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was the largest black church in the city, sometimes attracting thousands of patrons. In 1902, disaster struck the congregation.

The Horrors Of The Shiloh Baptist Church Stampede

On September 19, 1902, 115 people were killed at the church during an unexpected human stampede. Approximately 3,000 individuals had gathered at the Shiloh Baptist Church to hear Booker T. Washington, a leader of the African American community, speak. Some records indicate that at the end of his address, a disagreement occurred between the choir leader and a delegate. A choir member who witnessed the argument exclaimed the word “fight". The similarity in sound to "fire" led to mayhem. Booker T. Washington’s account of the incident claims that a woman screamed after seeing a man pretend to draw a gun in response to having his toe stepped on. According to him, one of the choir members yelled, “quiet!”, which was misunderstood as “fire!”

Whatever the case, chaos ensued shortly after. In an attempt to escape the potential fire, the congregation members began to evacuate. Unfortunately, amid the confusion, the people in attendance again misunderstood an announcement that requested everybody to take their seats and be quiet. Scared, the attendees fled toward the door, trying to make it out alive. In the process, people fell down, crawled over benches, and crowded the aisles. The church was filled with screams and a feeling of terror. Some people fainted from fear. Those individuals who had fallen were trampled on and some were crushed to death.

Some individuals were able to make it to the front door. However, building codes were not stringent at the time in terms of safety. The entrance to the church was located about 15 feet above ground level. The stairs leading up to the door were enclosed by 6-foot tall brick walls, preventing rapid evacuation. Once some people reached the top of the stairs, the crowd still trapped inside began to push and shove to make it out the door. This pushing caused the individuals at the top of the stairs to fall down, where they were subsequently buried under additional falling people. This pile of humans prohibited others from evacuating and about 20 people at the bottom of the pile died of suffocation. Those who did not die suffered from broken bones and other injuries.

After The Stampede

The fire and police departments responded to the triggered fire alarm. They worked to free the people trapped at the entrance and then helped to vacate the church. Nearly an hour after the initial scare, the church was largely emptied of living individuals. What remained was a disturbing sight; dead bodies lined the aisles and seats while severely injured individuals were crying out in pain and agony. Volunteers worked with the responding rescuers to remove the dead bodies as quickly as possible. Additionally, doctors and medical professionals living nearby were alerted of the event and began to arrive at the scene in order to aid the injured individuals.

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