A noose found in a white lieutenant’s locker in a Hattiesburg, Miss., fire department has caused a rift between Black and white firefighters and has resulted in the resignation of the station’s lieutenant.
According to the Associated Press, Shelton Russell, a 22-year veteran with the fire department, left his position in October after fallout from the noose being discovered and his subsequent demotion and suspension without pay. Chief Sherrocko Stewart demoted him and ordered that he go to counseling. Russell attempted to appeal the punishment instead of seeing the error of his ways and learning from the experience. The commission upheld the chief’s decision, and that’s when he resigned.
Russell doesn’t feel like he did anything wrong. His former colleagues don’t share his sentiment.
Kentavius Reed, a Black Hattiesburg firefighter, recalled the moment he saw the noose hanging inside Russell’s locker in a civil service commission hearing on Oct. 10, according to the AP.
“It was like shock at first,” he said. “I was kind of like ‘Why would you have it in your locker?'”
Another firefighter, Zeb Mitelsztet, agreed with Reed. Mitelsztet, who’s white, also testified about the noose at the commission hearing. According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, he was “shocked and disturbed” and that he considered the noose to be a representation of racial hatred.
In Russell’s statement to the commission and the Associated Press, he dismissed allegations of racism and explained that, for him, the noose represented America’s Wild West culture. He referenced that nooses were used in old Western movies he watched after taking a course on ropes some years back. Russell said a colleague showed him how to tie a noose and once it was done, he put it inside his locker and forgot about it.
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Even after the controversy settled, Russell still didn’t seem to understand why the noose was offensive.
“African-Americans were hung by it, [and] So were whites. So were horse thieves and you know, I’m a cowboy,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press. “I’m out in the country. I ride a tractor every day. That’s what I go back to cowboys.”
It’s not clear if Russell was being obtuse, but other people had an issue with his refusal to grasp the racist symbolism of the noose.
Hattiesburg City Councilwoman Deborah Delgado said she was “dumbfounded” that Russell didn’t comprehend why the noose was problematic, especially given Mississippi’s notoriously racist past.
Russell claimed that had he known that the noose would have offended others, he would’ve taken it home. He said the situation escalated too quickly to resolve it properly.
“Anything could be offensive,” he told the AP after the hearing. “But unless it’s brought to my attention, which it never was till after the fact, then how do I know?”
According to the self-proclaimed “cowboy,” he didn’t realize there was an issue until pictures of the noose taken by two firefighters began to circulate. In a statement, he accused them of “spreading rumors of racism” after he confronted them, which led to a heated confrontation, according to the AP.
Of the documented lynchings in the United States, Black Americans accounted for almost 73% of people lynched in this country, according to the NAACP. From 1882-1968, there were 4,743 recorded lynchings.
Mississippi had the highest number of lynchings in the country within that time period with 581 people hanged.
Though Russell is correct in his assessment that whites were lynched for theft and murder, those lynchings occurred out West, according to the NAACP, and had nothing to do with the horrors and fear Black Americans experienced daily in the racist South.