A Halloween display hung by homeowners from parkway trees was removed by the City of Evanston on Oct. 20 after residents reported that it evoked images of lynching. Two figures wrapped in black trash bags were hanging by chains from trees on the parkway outside a Second Ward residence.
“When I saw this horrific scene, it immediately triggered ‘Visions of strange fruit hanging from the Poplar trees,’ by Billie Holiday,” lifelong Evanston resident Tina Penick told a RoundTable reporter.
“We can’t let ‘strange fruit’ ever be commonplace again,” Penick said. “This should be addressed in our public policy.”
Penick was referring to the 1939 recording of “Strange Fruit” by blues legend Billie Holiday – a profound song about an era when lynching was one of the many forms of everyday violence inflicted on Black people in the American South. Originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, a teacher in the Bronx in New York City, “Strange Fruit” confronts anti-Black racism that the nation reckons with to this day.
Penick was not alone in calling for the hanging figures to be removed.
In an interview with the RoundTable, Second Ward Council Member Peter Braithwaite said he had received “a lot of phone calls and text messages” from residents who were concerned about the displays.
“It’s important to note there are young children who walk by the house on the way to school or the park. Parents were very concerned. Kids were afraid. In this particular situation, we have ordinances that don’t allow for items to hang from trees on the public parkway,” he said.
Braithwaite said he contacted the homeowners who put up the displays and relayed the residents’ concerns. He also informed them that the items would be removed from a public tree. The displays were moved by city staff onto the homeowner’s property.
“Those images will evoke strong emotions from a diverse community,” Braithwaite told the RoundTable.
City of Evanston Communications Manager Patrick Deignan confirmed that the city does not have the authority to remove such displays from private property.
“They would have to violate a city ordinance or law to be removed,” Deignan told the RoundTable in a phone interview on Oct. 21.
For many, the effigies are a painful reminder of the long history of racial violence against Black people in America. The Equal Justice Initiative documented “nearly 2,000 racial terror lynchings between 1865 and 1876,” in “Reconstruction in America; Racial Violence after the Civil War, 1865-1876.”
Communities nationwide grapple with Halloween props and displays that some residents view as symbols of racism, lynchings and the era of Jim Crow segregation. It is not difficult to find media coverage of instances where community members call for the removal of figures hanging from trees in the weeks before Halloween, even though the law does not prohibit them on private property.
Fifth Ward Council member Bobby Burns described the figures displayed in Evanston as “particularly offensive.”
“My first thought was that you shouldn’t have to touch the display to know it’s not real,” Burns said in an interview with the RoundTable.
He said the hanging figures were an example of Halloween decorations going from “playful and fantasy to harmful, hurtful and traumatizing, it comes across as mean-spirited.”
“My hope is that we can figure out how to spark a conversation that communicates the harm people are feeling. A dialogue that allows community members to truly hear one another could result in people becoming introspective instead of defensive if they are asked to remove displays that trigger trauma for some of their fellow community members,” Burns said.
Guidelines and community events to help families celebrate Halloween safely are published annually on the City of Evanston website. However, there is no guidance for house and yard decorations, even though passersby have no warning when they are about to see a disturbing Halloween display. Child psychologist Vicky Wolfe advises that house displays for Halloween should be done “in a fun way” so that children know they are not real.
“Would you want your six-year-old child to see that? [That] would be the item to think about, because that’s the age kids are going out at four, five, six,” she said in an interview with Blair Sanderson of CBC News.
“People should just be mindful that they’re part of the community,” Dr. Wolfe said.