The Hanging Tree, The End

Sitting deep in the woods, within a slight clearing, was the oak tree. Its trunk was massive and burly, with branches strong enough to bear the weight of the African American men, women, and children who met their final moments at its feet. Some of the white children, some of whom had been present during some of the lynchings, began to refer to it as the Hanging Tree. After Myron’s final hanging in 1961, someone had anonymously tied a  rope around the base of the trunk, its fibers painted red…  

On this particular warm morning in 2014, however, a gathering of teenagers, led by their American  History teacher, her mother, and a few of her friends and colleagues, approached the clearing. Bringing up the rear  were camera crews and reporters from an assortment of local news stations. When this assembly arrived at the tree,  the students formed a circle around it, each grabbing the hand of the person next to them.  

“That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Rebecca Harper whispered in her  daughter’s ear as the students formed their circle and held hands.  

“Truly,” Alice replied, both stunned by her students’ gesture and overcome with  emotion.  

Standing next to her, Henry Cooper slipped his hand into hers. Alice glanced down at their joined hands. History was one thing, yes, and the future was another.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

A pleasure to share this story with you. Thanks for reading, for commenting, for liking.

More stories to come!

The Hanging Tree, Part 5

Alice slipped on a pair of sunglasses when she walked outside the next morning due to  the glare of the sun, but primarily to cover her swollen eyes. Following her short, succinct meeting with the superintendent, the desire to both scream and give up had culminated in a weeping session in the ladies’ room. (She drily noted that the time spent sobbing in the bathroom stall had been longer than the meeting itself.) As she walked toward the parking lot, her mind raced, sadness and confusion swelling in her chest. However, rage was quickly surpassing those other emotions. By the time Alice reached her car and discovered Henry Cooper standing next to it, she wanted to shatter somebody’s windshield with her fists. Perhaps the superintendent’s. Surprised that he was there, she nevertheless held up her hand. “I can’t talk to you right now,”  she said.  

“What happened in there?” Henry asked.  

“I’m surrounded by inept, idiotic fools who care more about public relations than education. That’s what happened in there.”  

Hot, angry tears quickly then pulsated behind her eyes. It was her lot in life to react to anger with tears. As the tears descended past her sunglasses, down her face, and onto her blouse, Henry approached her and placed his arm around her shoulders.  

“You planned this,” Alice said, wiping her face. “To be here and to be the hero.”  

“I just wanted to support you. This actual moment, however, with my arm around you, might be icing on the cake. Although I would prefer that you weren’t crying.”   

“Did you really turn down Atlanta because of me?” Alice asked.  

Henry nodded. “I didn’t like the idea of not being in the same building as you.” 

“You should know that it’s highly likely that I’ll be fired, so being in the same building as me may not matter.”

“Yes.”

“I’m taking the kids to the tree.”  

“I know.”  

“I might go to another school in another city, another state.”  

“I know that, too. But Alice, I can only hope that if there’s a chance that you leave, it won’t be goodbye.” 

Alice took off her sunglasses and looked up at him. “I mean it, Henry. I need to really know you first.” 

“I want you to know me, remember?”  

There was no harm to simply getting to know him, was there? she reasoned. Admittedly,  the fact that he was even there at the superintendent’s office spoke volumes. Slowly, she placed her head on his shoulder.

The Hanging Tree, Part 4

“Would you date someone outside of your race?”

Nadine Maxwell peered at Alice over her wineglass following the latter’s question. Having since reconciled over their disagreement earlier that week (being friends since grade school meant they couldn’t live with an impasse between them for too long), the two sat on the floor in Alice’s living room that evening. In advance of the next day’s meeting, it was Alice’s intention to drink away the abundance of nerves that currently consumed her. The idea of meeting the superintendent with a slight hangover paled in comparison to quieting the butterflies that roamed about the entirety of her body.

“That’s certainly an interesting question,” Nadine said.

“Well, would you?”

“I would and I have.”  

Alice’s eyes widened. “You have?”

“Sure. In college. He was Asian.”

“Asian? Where was I?”  

“Probably holding mock sit-ins at the local diner.”  

The two collapsed into endless giggles.  

“All right, let’s be serious,” Alice then said. “How—I mean—” Her voice trailed off.

“Alice, I didn’t care that he was Asian,” Nadine said. “He was simply a great guy. That’s the criteria for whoever I end up falling for: if he’s a great guy, that’s all I need. I don’t care where he’s from or what he looks like.”

“But what about someone who understands our culture, people, and our background? Our Black experience?” Alice countered. “Aren’t those things important?”

“They are. And I’ll want to reach a place of understanding about those things, or at least try to come close, and also acknowledge our differences. But if we don’t share the same experience, that’s fine. The essence of the individual is far more important to me.”

She blinked rapidly, astounded by her friend’s words. Could she step outside of her comfort zone? Did she even want to?

“This is about Henry Cooper, isn’t it?” Nadine asked.  

“How in the world did you know?”  

Nadine laughed. “Oh, my poor friend. He’s been head over heels for you since we were in high school, Alice. Of course, if you didn’t notice the guy I was dating, you wouldn’t notice anything else. He even stayed in Myron because of you. Five years ago, he was offered a job teaching in Atlanta and he turned it down.”

Alice shook her head in disbelief at this revelation. Images of high-school aged Henry Cooper attending her rallies, handing out flyers, attending her speeches flooded her mind, as if a window to the past had been finally unlocked. “I’m blinder than a roomful of bats,” she muttered, a phrase her father was famous for saying. She then recalled Henry’s words.

Stop looking behind you and look right in front of you.

Nadine touched her arm. “Look, Al, you can feel whatever you like. There’s no rule that says you have to return Henry’s feelings. But I also think, in this case, you’re judging a book solely by its cover. And that’s something I know you don’t want to be a part of.”

*

End it. Make a statement to your students and to the school board that you regret the divisive nature of this endeavor. Abandon this plan or there will be adverse consequences.

The Hanging Tree, Part 3

Unfortunately for Alice, however, Henry Cooper wasn’t leaving her mind anytime soon.  She thought so much about his admission that she found herself bursting into his classroom early Monday morning.

Sitting at his desk, Henry looked up at her in surprise, his reading glasses nearly falling off in the process. He stood up. “Alice—”  

“Did you actually believe that you’d tell me that you’re in love with me and I would choose not to talk about it?” Alice asked.  

“Well, I—”  

“I’m Black!”  

Henry nodded and smiled slightly. “I noticed.”  

“Is this some kind of strange fascination? Is that what this is?” she questioned.   

The smile disappeared from his face. “You think my feelings are part of a strange fascination?”  

“It’s a valid question, Henry. History validates that question. Thousands of black babies born in fields and barns with white fathers who would never acknowledge them validate that question. I  want to know where all of this is coming from.”  

Henry shook his head. “Forgive me, but that might be the most ridiculous thing I’ve  ever heard. Open your eyes, Alice. Stop looking behind you and look right in front of you.” He walked around the desk and approached her. “You’re Black. So what? I’m White. So what?”  

“You can’t ‘so what?’ race. We don’t live in that kind of world,” she replied. “And to be frank, I have to ask these questions. I don’t really know you. Yes, we grew up together and we’re colleagues, and yes, we’ve spent some time outside of school, but bowling and game nights don’t mean anything. I don’t know you, Henry.”  

“Then get to know me, Alice,” he said softly, his brown eyes fixed on hers. “Get to know  me.”  

Startled by the earnestness of his appeal, Alice nonetheless stepped back. “I need to go,”  she said before marching out of the room.  

*

“Ms. Harper?”  

She turned from the chalkboard later that and regarded McKinley Battle, one of the tenth graders  in her fourth-period class. “Yes, Mr. Battle?”  

“My mom told me that if you take us to the tree, she’s going to make sure that you lose your job.”  

Alice nodded. “I know, Mr. Battle. She informed me of that, as well.”  

“But…you’re still taking us, right?”  

*

An hour later, #takeustothetree began trending on various forms of social media. By  mid-afternoon, local civil rights chapters urged the school board to approve the visit to the  Hanging Tree.  

Finally, at the end of the day, Alice Harper received a call from the superintendent’s  office. She was to meet with Franklin Walsh, the superintendent, first thing the following  morning.  

The Hanging Tree, Part 2

However, it was the elephant in the room, wasn’t it? Furthermore, Henry’s admission had given birth to another elephant in the room: Henry Cooper, a White man, was in love with Alice Harper, a Black woman. As she gazed at her dark brown skin in the mirror later that night, that particular fact loomed larger than anything else. Where did this love come from? In all her thirty three years, could she have ever imagined that a declaration of love would come from a man who wasn’t Black?

The questions remained there, unanswered, swirling about the gray heads of all the elephants that now occupied the room.

That weekend, as she drove down the winding, tree-lined pathway that led to her parents’ home, Alice busied her jumbled mind with envisioning her late father as a young boy skipping down the same road. By 1970, Alice’s paternal grandfather had purchased the plot of land where the Harper family home now stood, having completed installment payments made over a number of years. He had finally become a landowner. Her father could freely skip and play on a plot of land that belonged to his family. But Alice knew that her forebears had maintained a wary eye on their surroundings, and certainly on that energetic fourteen year-old boy, regardless of the land they held. The times were no less conflicted as Black landowners.

As she pulled into the circular driveway in front of the house, Alice banished the other thoughts that aimed to flood her mind. Soon, she stood inside the airy, light-filled foyer. “Mama?” she called.

“Upstairs, Alice,” Rebecca Harper replied.  

Bounding up the stairs, Alice entered the master bedroom and found her mother sorting through an endless pile of clothes on her bed. “What’s going on here?” she asked before nearly racing into her mother’s open arms. Closing her eyes and inhaling her mother’s perfume, she momentarily forgot the stresses of the past week and other related topics.

“That silly cruise, remember?” her mother replied, hugging her tightly.

“Oh, I forgot: the Greek Isles with Ms. Edna.”  

“She wants to us to look like we’re rich and available.”  

“Sounds like Ms. Edna.” With that, Alice flopped down onto the bed, eventually burrowing herself into one of her mother’s mink coats.

Rebecca sat down on the bed and gently rubbed Alice’s back. “What’s wrong, baby?”

Having not yet informed her mother of her plans to take her students to the tree, Alice sat up and told her everything. She started from the beginning, when she had initially thought of the idea, to the heated meeting with the school board a few days ago. “Less than 50 years ago, Jim Crow laws were alive and well right here in Myron,” Alice said. “And these people want to pretend like those things never happened. Taking the kids to the tree is just my small attempt to help them memorialize the past.”

Her mother nodded slowly. “I see that,” she said softly.  

“What do you think, Mama?” she asked. “Am I crazy or what?”  

Her mother studied her, a slight smile on her lips. “I think your father would be proud of you. He was just as idealistic as you are and just as stubborn. One time, the editor of the Myron Sun begged me to convince him to stop writing so many letters of complaint to the paper.”

The two laughed quietly before a heavy silence entered between them, the memories of  Alice’s beloved father playing out in their minds.  

“It’s not my opinion that the past should be swept under the rug as if it never happened,” Rebecca then said. “And I agree that some of these teenagers should see what things were like for some of their own ancestors, especially right here in Myron, even if the tree is more a symbol now.” Rebecca paused. “The whole thing is very serious, Alice. Is it worth losing your job over?”

“I honestly don’t care if I lose my job, Mama.” With those words, the image of Henry Cooper bizarrely infiltrated her mind’s eye, breaking through the barrier she had set up for that particular line of thinking. With some effort, Alice mentally pushed him away. “Maybe Myron isn’t enough for me,” she continued. “This could be a sign that I need something new and different.”

“Well, whatever you decide, I’ll support it. Supporting you is more important to me than anything.”

So far, Alice mused, she had two supporters in her corner: her mother and the one person she didn’t really want to think about.

The Hanging Tree, Part 1

Guess what?

I’m sharing more short fiction with you, dear reader. I wrote this short story after my bestie saw the tree in question (you’ll see further for context) and posed a simple idea to me: write a story about that tree. This was the result. I’ll share in excerpts. Read on…(and this is something I welcome doing with you here on TSP: you give me a topic, I write a story from it. We shall do that next.)

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

People tended to forget that history, their history, was soaked in blood. But Alice Harper refused to let the annals of the past go. She incorporated that painful history in most of her  lessons, doing her level best to surpass the ineffectual books that crowded the shelves in her  classroom. In the end, each young mind in her American History classes would recognize that  Myron, Georgia, and the United States (certainly the Southern United States), at large, was not always the place of freedom they had known it to be.  

“But does every lesson require so much intensity?” asked her colleague and close friend, Nadine Maxwell, as they ate lunch in the teacher’s lounge that afternoon. “I understand that you want the kids to take the past to heart, but—”  

“But what, Nadine? Is it too real for them? Are we trying to shield these children from reality now?” Alice asked. “If you ask me, the ‘reality’ they’re exposed to has been whitewashed  beyond repair. It’s about time we stop force feeding them fantasy.”  

“Good Lord, Alice, calm down.”  

“I just want you to be clear with me: what is so wrong with my idea?”

Nadine released a long, deep breath. “There’s nothing inherently wrong with your idea.  But it’s just too much. Why subject them to such a place of horror?”  

Alice abruptly stood and collected the remainder of her lunch. “That place of horror is  where a great number who came before us breathed their last breath. I’d like to believe that you  would want these kids to show it some respect. I guess I was wrong.” With that, she deposited  her food in the garbage and stormed out of the lounge. In her haste, she nearly collided with Henry Cooper, a fellow teacher. “Oh, pardon me, Hen. I was just…” She glanced behind her. “I had to get out of there.” As she reached down to pick up his fallen lunch bag, Henry gently  stopped her and picked it up himself.  

“Did someone leave something ghastly in the microwave again?” he asked.   

“Well, ghastly is the right word, yes, but it has nothing to do with the microwave. I need to get back to the classroom. See you later.”  

*  

Richard Mason, Myron High’s principal, felt that Alice was being “improper.”   A week later, scores of parents—via emails and phone calls—threatened to remove their children from her classes.  

That late afternoon, as Alice sat in her empty classroom, her eyes turned toward the windows and focused on the graying, dimming sky, she felt like having a drink. Unfortunately—or perhaps fortunately, depending on  how one looked at it—she wasn’t one of the teachers who kept alcoholic reinforcements in their desk drawer. Sighing, she glanced down at the lesson plan on her desk, which she had presented to the school board a few days ago: a field trip to take her students to the Hanging Tree. 

Sitting deep in the woods, within a slight clearing, was the oak tree. Its trunk was massive and burly,  with branches strong enough to bear the weight of the African American men, women, and children who met their  final moments at its feet. Some of the white children, some of whom had been present during some of the lynchings,  began to refer to it as the Hanging Tree. After Myron’s final hanging in 1961, someone anonymously tied a rope  around the base of the trunk, its fibers painted red.  

The knock on her classroom door interrupted her thoughts. “Come in,” Alice wearily called. 

Henry Cooper pushed open the door and walked into the room. “I was passing by and  saw you inside. Just wanted to check if everything was all right.”  

“Thanks. Last minute paperwork. What are you still doing here?”   

Henry sat down across from her. “Same as you: finishing up a few things.” He paused.  “Nadine told me about your idea to take the kids to the tree.”  

She sighed. “Let me guess: you’re shocked and outraged that I would subject those young minds to something so horrifying?”  

Henry shook his head. “On the contrary: I completely support it.”  

Alice raised her eyebrows. “You do?”  

“You’re a wonderful teacher, Alice. I have no doubt that you know what you’re doing. I  remember hearing about the Hanging Tree when we moved to Myron. My parents sat me down  when I asked them about it and told me everything I needed to know. They didn’t shield the  truth from me. And that made a deep impact, believe it or not. I think you have the capacity to  impact your students in a similar way and I support that wholeheartedly.”   

Moved, Alice smiled at him. “Thank you for understanding, Henry.”   

“You’re welcome. Hey, you’re doing important things. My binomials pale in comparison  to living history.” Henry taught tenth and twelfth grade Algebra.  

 “Don’t say that. You’re as dedicated as they come. I’ve always thought very highly of  you.”  

 “I appreciate that,” he said. “Means a lot coming from you. In fact—well,  never mind.”  

 “What?”  

 He regarded her, his expression unreadable. He then laughed softly to himself but remained silent.   

“What is it, Hen?” she pressed, confused.  

 “All right. There really is no other way to say it. I’m in love with you.”  

Later, she would recall the strange sensation that settled over her in that moment, like inhaling sharply and losing her breath all at the same time.  

“You don’t have to reply,” Henry continued. “I’m not sure why I said it so run-of-the-mill like that, like we were talking about the weather. I’m sorry about that.”  

For the second time that day, Alice wished she had a drink.  

Henry stood up. “But it won’t be the elephant in the room, Alice. It’s merely how I feel.  If you want to talk about it, we can. If not, that’s okay, too.” With that he walked out of the  classroom.  

Alice leaned back in her chair, her hand planted over her chest. Shock seemed to  manifest itself everywhere: within the goose bumps that appeared on her arms, the electric tingle  in the middle of her scalp. By the time she had the presence of mind to finally leave for the day,  the sun had already set.