WASHINGTON – It was the beginning of a night shift last week at the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, a secure facility that manufactures money, when a white male coin maker strode across the factory floor to the workstation of an African-American colleague. He was carrying a piece of rope.
The rope had an official purpose: to seal coin bags once they were full. But the worker, who operates the machinery used to make coins, instead looped and twisted it into a hangman’s noose, according to Rhonda Sapp, president of the Mint workers’ union. She was soon deluged with calls and text messages from outraged employees.
The episode, which has not previously been reported, was confirmed by a spokeswoman for the Treasury Department with a statement saying that the agency has “absolutely zero tolerance” for such hateful displays and that authorities were investigating. It is the latest in a series of reports this year involving nooses – especially in the nation’s capital – that point to the return of the hangman’s rope as a potent expression of racial animus.
Nooses, long a powerful symbol of bigotry and hatred directed at African-Americans, have been found hanging from a tree outside the Hirshhorn Museum on the National Mall; in a gallery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture; outside an elementary school; and on the campus of American University, where bananas with hateful messages were found hanging from nooses on the same day that the first black woman was set to assume the presidency of the university’s Student Government Association.
“To me, a noose is lynching,” said Taylor Dumpson, the woman who became the university’s student government president. “That’s immediately what comes to my mind, that someone is going to hang you, that someone is going to die. That’s a very chilling thing.”
Nooses have also been found in recent months at a middle school in Florida, at a high school in North Carolina and at a fraternity house at the University of Maryland. Also in Maryland, two 19-year-olds are being prosecuted in the hanging of a noose from a light fixture outside a middle school.
At the same time, members of the Ku Klux Klan – an organization whose history is closely enmeshed with the use of nooses in lynchings – appear to be stepping up their public activities. Robed Klansmen appeared at a gay pride march in Florence, Alabama, last month, and the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan are planning a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday.
The noose at the Mint a week ago Wednesday was particularly shocking, Sapp said, because the Mint is under heavy surveillance given its security concerns – employees know they are being recorded as they work. After a daylong investigation, during which the creator of the noose was kept off the factory floor to protect him from physical retaliation, she said, he was placed on administrative leave and escorted out of the building.
But Sapp said that Treasury officials had not done enough to address the roots of persistent racial discord within the factory, adding, “They sweep a lot under the rug.”
The Treasury spokeswoman said only that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had “directed that this matter be handled swiftly and seriously.”
Advocacy groups that track hate crimes say the rash of noose cases is part of an uptick in such crimes, fueled by the coarsening of public conversation that began during last year’s presidential campaign and that has continued amid bitter divisions over the election outcome.
“We are in a moment right now where we certainly have not only heightened awareness but a greater frequency of hate incidents,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. He called the surge in noose episodes “really alarming.”
The hangman’s rope has been used for centuries to execute people but became a particular object of racial terror in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when 4,700 people – mostly men but also women and children – were hanged from trees, telephone poles and bridges across the nation, according to Jack Shuler, the author of “The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose.” Roughly three-quarters were African-American.