What’s Wrong with a Tree?

Published:September 21, 2012 by Brendan Wolfe

According to this article, empty chairs, apparently representing President Barack Obama, recently have been hung in effigy in Virginia and Texas.

The chairs, on display at two Centreville, Va., and Austin, Texas, homes, are a reference to Clint Eastwood’s chair speech, and conjure memories of mob lynchings once common in the South. Technically, it’s a free country, and it’s their right, but the symbolism behind the actions of just a few is disturbing for the rest of America.

Why? Well, look long and hard at the photograph above, which depicts the lynching of sixteen-year-old Lige Daniels in Texas in 1920. Then consider that such violence was not confined to the Deep South, as our entry on the Anti-Lynching Law of 1928 explains:

In 1920, 1921, and 1923, mobs in Wise County, Brunswick County, and King and Queen County carried out extralegal killings. More than likely an additional lynching took place in Halifax County in 1920, although that murder was never officially recorded as such.

On November 30, 1927, a mob of white Virginians and white Kentuckians stormed a jail near the state line and seized Leonard Woods, a black man accused of murdering a white Virginian. One newspaper reported that members of the mob standing in Kentucky “posed a question across the state line: ‘Do Virginians want the Negro lynched?’

“Virginia answered.”

Woods was murdered and his corpse riddled with bullets.

This is the history that informs the way at least some people view the representation of a black man hanging from a tree.

When an Austin television news crew confronted Bud Johnson, the homeowner who hung the chair, he denied that any such meaning existed. He had this to say while untying the chair from its noose:

JOHNSON: If he [the cameraman] don’t turn that off, I’m gonna attack him.

REPORTER: Why do you have this chair up?

JOHNSON: Have you ever heard of the Clint Eastwood thing, the empty chair?

REPORTER: Yeah, but you realize it has other significance.

JOHNSON: No, it has no other meaning.

REPORTER: You don’t think it has any other meaning?

JOHNSON: No, it has no other meaning. That’s all it has.

REPORTER: You don’t think it’s racist?

JOHNSON: I’m not a racist! I don’t dislike any race.

REPORTER: So why are you taking it down?

JOHNSON: I’m gonna set it right over there … Is anybody else got a chair sitting out receiving the same harassment that you guys are giving?

REPORTER: You have it hanging from a tree as if it’s being lynched.

JOHNSON: So what? What’s wrong with a tree?

Mr. Johnson, I would argue, wants his history on the cheap. Here I’m paraphrasing Ta-Nehisi Coates, the Atlantic senior editor and author of “Fear of a Black President,” who spoke at VCU last night. (I attended with friends from the radio show BackStory.) Coates was responding to a question about why battles like Antietam even matter anymore. Or, for that matter, why study slavery? Because, Coates argued, it informs who we are as a nation and who we are as people. And that kind of information is critical to the kind of educated citizenship envisioned by the Founders. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816, “it expects what never was and never will be.” Such education, such history, may not always make us feel warm and fuzzy, but to avoid it, to decide it’s unimportant, is to take our citizenship on the cheap.

Of course, Bud Johnson—and presumably his likeminded neighbor to the north, in Virginia—is doing more than that. To make his political point, he is drawing on the full power of our violent history while at the same time denying that history.

What’s wrong with a tree? he asks. And if only we could say, “Virginia answered.”

PS: BackStory interviewed Coates for an upcoming show on emancipation. The current show, as it happens, is about domestic terrorism.

IMAGES: Detail from a photograph of the lynching of sixteen-year-old Lige Daniels in Center, Texas, on August 3, 1920; wooden chair with “Nobama” sign hung in Centreville, Virginia; empty chair hanging in front of the home of Bud Johnson in Austin, Texas; Clint Eastwood speaking at the Republican National Convention on August 30 (Associated Press)


4 Comments on “What’s Wrong with a Tree?”

  1. Michael C. Lucas

    If your going to discuss Jim Crow Lynchings why not mention those in the Northern States such as in Deluth, and the famous pictures of the Marion Indiana hangings etc. . . ? Or do you wish to maintain a particular bias?

  2. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Mr. Lucas. You’re our bias watchdog, apparently! Where Encyclopedia Virginia is concerned, my bias is to focus on Virginia. Last night I scrolled through almost a hundred postcards of lynchings, and yes, a few of them were from my native Midwest, including Duluth. However, the vast majority of lynchings occurred in the Deep South (in George, Alabama, and Mississippi, if memory serves), and anyway, the point of my post was to remind folks that, yes, they occurred here in Virginia, too. I think that if I were blogging for a Minnesota encyclopedia, I would have mentioned Minnesota specifically. Does that answer your question?

  3. Michael C. Lucas

    Would population density have anything to do with why there were more African Americans lynched in the South per se the North? Two how many Lynchings were there in every state period. How many divided by ethnicity and back ground? Finally it was National injustice overall not just the South, but it must be understood why it was more prevalent in the South. Why it was not in the North.

  4. Brendan Wolfe Post author

    I’m happy to look at whatever data you want to throw at us, Mr. Lucas, concerning the rate of lynchings (or other kinds of violence against African Americans) and population density. But I’m not sure why you are so invested in drawing equivalencies here: this particular injustice — lynching — happened in the North and it happened in the South, but it happened far, far more in the South. If the answer is NOT because the white South had a recent history of enslaving its African Americans and then, after the war, attempting to reduce them again through both politics (see our entry on the Convention of 1901–1902) and violence, then by all means make an argument.

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