A noose discovered in the locker of a white Mississippi firefighter has roiled a city fire department, dividing colleagues and ending with the resignation of a station manager.
Shelton Russell, former lieutenant for the Hattiesburg Fire Department, stepped down in October after facing punishment amid fallout over a hangman’s noose found in his locker in August, according to The Associated Press. Russell was demoted and suspended without pay over an incident he did not consider offensive and said had been completely overblown.
His colleagues felt differently.
“It was like shock at first,” firefighter Kentavius Reed recalled of the moment he spotted the rope hanging inside Russell’s open locker.
When asked why it was upsetting, Reed pointed to how nooses had been used to hang African-Americans.
“I was kind of like ‘Why would you have it in your locker?'” the 24-year-old added.
Zeb Mitelsztet, a white engineer at the station, agreed, testifying at an Oct. 10 commission hearing that he was “shocked and disturbed” to discover the noose, according to documents the AP obtained. Mitelsztet said he’d always considered the symbol as representation of racial hatred.
Russell didn’t see it that way, however. In statements to the commission and AP, the 22-year-department veteran brushed aside allegations of racism and explained that, for him, the noose is a representation of Americas Wild West culture. He described how he got into watching old Westerns after taking a ropes course several years ago.
Russell said it was a colleague who showed him how to tie a noose. He put the rope in his locker and didn’t think of it again.
Even after the controversy it caused within his department, Russell said he doesn’t understand the noose’s fraught racial history or why it’s offensive.
“African-Americans were hung by it, [and] So were whites,” he told the AP in a recent interview. “So were horse thieves and you know, I’m a cowboy. I’m out in the country. I ride a tractor every day. That’s what I go back to, cowboys — and that’s how it got started, with watching the Western.”
Many took issue with the station manager’s refusal to see the racist symbolism of the noose. Deborah Delgado, a city councilwoman, said she was “dumbfounded” that Russell couldn’t understand why the noose was problematic, especially considering Mississippi’s history of racial strife.
Statistics from the Tuskegee Institute show Mississippi topped the list of Southern U.S. states with the most lynchings between 1882 and 1968. A total of 581 people were lynched during this time span, with more than 90 percent the victims being African-Americans.
Perhaps the most notable of these was the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old boy Emmett Till.
Russell said had he known the noose would cause offense, he would’ve taken it home. He never got the chance, however, claiming the situation escalated too quickly.
“Anything could be offensive,” he said “But unless it’s brought to my attention, which it never was till after the fact, then how do I know?”
Russell wasn’t aware of the furor until photos of the noose were circulated among department employees, the outlet reported. He confronted the two firefighters who snapped the photo, accusing them of “spreading rumors of racism.” The situation only worsened from there.
Fire chief Sherrocko Stewart demoted the seasoned lieutenant and ordered him to undergo counseling. Russell tried appealing the punishment, only for it to be upheld by the commission in October. He would later resign from his post.
The Hattiesburg Fire Department didn’t return requests for comment.