CADDO PARISH, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – The Caddo Parish Commission on Monday declined to consider a resolution declaring a public apology for past racial violence and systemic racism, as well as opening bids to take down a live oak tree on the courthouse lawn that some believe was the one traditionally used for lynchings.
Dist. 7 Commissioner Stormy Gage-Watts moved to place Resolution 36 of 2022 on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting. The resolution cites “systemic racism that included over 500 lynchings” and notes the parish became known as “Bloody Caddo” for the racist violence perpetrated on African-American citizens here.
Caddo Parish has a long and well-documented history of resisting social change and Reconstruction following the Civil War. Its seat, the City of Shreveport, served as the capital of Confederate Louisiana after the fall of New Orleans. The Confederate flag flew in front of the steps of the courthouse until 2011.
“This is a multi-pronged approach to promote healing in Caddo Parish,” Gage-Watts said. “As we search for our identity, it is imperative that we acknowledge our hurtful past.”
However, the commission voted not to advance the resolution during Monday’s work session meeting.
“I know that many horrible things have happened in our community in the past and that there’s been racism and hatred and violence, and I certainly don’t condone those types of activities,” Dist. 9 Commissioner John Atkins, “but I believe in looking forward. And I’d like to see us move forward together. And to me, these types of statements – I know everybody as a different view of things – but from my perspective, these types of statements push us further apart rather than bring us together.”
Commissioner Mario Chavez supported moving the resolution forward but also suggested exploring options to educate the public as an alternative to a public apology.
“Some history for some people that don’t know what actually happened could be a good compromise.”
Commissioners Chavez, Gage-Watts, Johnson, and Young voted in favor of advancing the resolution. Commissioners Atkins, Hopkins, Lazarus, and Taliaferro voted against it, effectively killing the effort.
The commission also declined to consider a motion by Dist. 2 Commissioner Lyndon B. Johnson authorizing bids to take down a live oak tree on the courthouse lawn that some say was used for lynchings following the Civil War, from the late 1800s through the 1950s. However, local historian and author Dr. Gary Joiner says the tree targeted for removal on the south side of the courthouse on Milam Street is not the one that was used for lynchings.
“They mean well, but it doesn’t exist,” said Joiner, who chairs the Department of History and Social Sciences at LSU Shreveport. “The trees that were used are long-gone. There’s no verifiable lynching tree on the courthouse grounds. That is a popular misconception.”
Instead, Dr. Joiner says, the tree that was traditionally used in lynchings at the courthouse was on the northern side of the courthouse, at the corner of Texas Street and McNeil Street. That tree, Joiner says, died of old age long ago and the tree Johnson specified in his motion would have been among those that were “mere saplings” at the time.
The large live oak trees that currently dot the courthouse lawn were seedlings donated by Judge Thomas Fletcher Bell in the late 1800s before the current courthouse was built, making them around 118 years old.
During Monday’s discussion, Dist. 10 Commissioner Mario Chavez asked for clarification on whether this specific tree was the one used for lynchings. Johnson said it was his understanding that it is, but that he will double-check with local historians and suggested there could have been multiple trees used for lynchings outside the courthouse.
Whether any of them were specifically used for lynchings or not, they serve for some as a symbol and painful reminder of a period marked by violent white-on-black crime that earned the parish its “Bloody Caddo” moniker, including lynchings in Caddo Parish from 1896 to 1937.
“Caddo was called ‘Bloody Caddo’ for a reason,” Joiner said.
Lynching data varies because it is impossible to know exactly how many occurred as there was no formal tracking and different organizations that have attempted to quantify how many of the extrajudicial killings took place use slightly varying definitions and time frames. But according to the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching in America report, there were 549 racial terror lynchings in Louisiana between 1877 and 1950, with 48 of them in Caddo Parish. Of the top 25 counties with the most lynching victims, EJI ranks Caddo tied at number 3 with Leflore, Mississippi, behind Lafourche, Louisiana with 52, and Phllips, Arkansas with 245.
“Lynchings were violent and public acts of torture that traumatized Black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials,” the EJI report says.
“Many African Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators,” according to the Alabama-based non-profit social justice organization that opened The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in April 2018, dedicated to “the legacy of enslaved Black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
Still, even if any of the trees remaining on the courthouse lawn were confirmed to have been used for lynchings, Dist. 1 Commissioner Todd Hopkins was among those who voted against looking into how much it would cost to cut it down.
“I can’t see cutting down a tree. The tree didn’t do anything. But I would say that there is an opportunity. Why don’t we take a display or something like that inside the courthouse and educate the public, white and black, Hispanic, Asian about what happened? You know, Auschwitz was one of the worst places on Earth and they kept it so it would never happen again. Maybe that’s the way we need to be looking at that, something differently where we’re educating the people that this happened, but we need to make sure it never happens again.”
Dist. 8 Commissioner Jim Taliaferro recounted a conversation he says he had with a Black man he ran into on Texas Street recently who asked, ‘If you get rid of everything to do with our colorful embarrassing history, then how am I to teach my child?’
“So in other words, I think things in public display are a great opportunity for education and not to be hidden, not to be destroyed. It is embarrassing, it is shameful, what we have done to another man, but I don’t think it’s our responsibility to try to eliminate everything thing we possibly can to try to make things right because it’ll never be it right. We can possibly be whole, but we can never make it right. We can never make that injustice go away.”
Dist. 4 Commissioner John Paul Young also opposed the removal of the tree.
“When I was growing up I read a famous poem about nature and its most famous line was, ‘Only God can make a tree.’ People kill them a lot, but they never do anything to harm people. Trees don’t tie knots. Trees don’t hate people based on their skin color. Taking out revenge on a tree because it’s a symbol means that we are symbolizing something voluntarily when we could not. We could choose to forgive the tree the way our God tells us to, even though the tree is an inanimate object.” I don’t think that this is a rational way to deal with the trauma of lynching, by destroying a being that gives shade on that spot for another 1,500 years, because these trees can live that long here on our planet. So I’m going to vote no on this, and every time it ever comes up again.”
The move to explore the cost of removing the live oak tree failed by a vote of five to three.
Consideration of an apology and removal of a purported lynching tree comes a week after crews removed the Confederate Veterans Reunion Monument that honors those soldiers who died fighting for the Confederacy on the front side of the Caddo courthouse following years of legal battles.
These items will be discussed in a commission work session this afternoon, which is set to begin at 3:30 p.m. Watch the Caddo Commission meeting here.