The Lynching Tree

The Lynching Tree

Over the last several months, sparked by the Confederate monument in Fairview Cemetery, I have studied the installation of similar monuments across the country near the turn of the twentieth century, cemetery law, current-day supporters of the Confederacy, Civil War history, and, most importantly, the experience of Black Americans. I have also spent a great deal of time carefully examining my own views on these topics.

As a result of my work, I have come to be passionate about the Black experience and the intentionality of whites’ past and current oppression of Blacks. Consequently, I was struck recently when reading the book Caste by Isabell Wilkerson. In her study of the American caste system, she writes briefly of an allegorical (though all-too-real) tree that sits inconveniently in the middle of the main street in a small southern town. In the story, the town’s citizens refused to remove it because it had served its community well in years past as the lynching tree. And it continued to serve its community by bearing “…silent witness to the black citizens of their eternal lot, and in so doing, it whispered reassurances to the dominant caste [whites] of theirs.” (Caste, p. 91)

In Liberty, our “lynching tree” is not a tree, but a monument. It does not sit in the middle of a street, but in a cemetery, looming over the portion of the cemetery where Blacks were unceremoniously interred without markers. While no one has been lynched on that site, make no mistake – its purpose was the same as the lynching trees in those southern towns. “…it was performing its duty to ‘perpetually and eternally’ remind black townspeople of who among them had last been hanged from its limbs and who could be next.” (p. 91)

The land where the monument stands was purchased in 1900, the same year as a lynching on the Clay County courthouse steps a few hundred yards away. It was erected four years later, still twenty-one years before the last documented lynching in Clay County. The message of this monument was clear. It was erected to remind Black Americans, Clay Countians, that their place in our society would be forever beneath whites. How convenient that the sponsors of the monument (and senders of that message) could hide behind the “valiant” lives and deaths of the men who fought for the right to continue to own other human beings.

Our community has allowed the monument to stand for 116 years. It has been easy to do. It does not stand in a street. It is off the beaten path. It was erected to “honor” people, even though not one person buried in Fairview Cemetery was memorialized on it until November 2020 after discussion of its removal began. It has been easy to let it stay in place. Do not miss the message, though. Its real purpose is the same as the original lynching trees that stood for years after the last lynching. And it has fulfilled that purpose exceedingly well, as Liberty’s Black community has attested.

Liberty faces a decision. Will our community keep this lynching tree?

If this monument remains in a Liberty-owned cemetery, it will be the result of an affirmative decision to keep a monument that foments division and seeks to oppress a portion of our citizenry. Such a decision will mean that we have embraced a monument to the Confederacy, not to the men who fought in the war. We will own it, and we will never be able to walk away from that. It will belong not only to those who celebrate the Confederacy. It will belong not only to the Klan sympathizers who look on it with favor. It will be ours, and that will be a sad day for our community.