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Noose incident can be a teachable moment, leaders suggest

The boys responsible for hanging a black baby doll had no idea of the history of lynching or the racial implications of their prank.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The discovery of a black baby doll hanging from a noose in South Philadelphia’s Weccacoe Playground on Thursday struck a nerve across the city, but has since been revealed as a prank by a group of neighborhood boys.

The Rev. Mark Tyler, the pastor of Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, said that the boys, ages 8 to 12, admitted to hanging the doll “to scare people” without knowing about “the historical legacy of lynching.”

“[The boys] seemed honestly remorseful,” Tyler said. “They confessed they did it” even though their parents were not there and had not pressed them to confess.

He also said that the boys did not deliberately intend to provoke racial tensions.

“They knew what they did was wrong, but didn’t know the reason why and didn’t understand what they did,” he said.

After learning that the boys were unaware of the country’s sordid record of lynching, several prominent individuals highlighted the value of educating young people about racial relations and African American history.

“The acts themselves have a harmful effect on individuals and communities, regardless of the intention,” Mike Dunn, the city’s deputy communications director, wrote in an email to the Notebook.

“And while the Mayor would certainly be relieved to learn that this was an innocent prank, it’s an important teachable moment for those behind it who should better understand the history of this country and why a black doll on a noose is so traumatizing.”

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, stressed the importance of ensuring that the boys “understand the seriousness of their actions and the historic context behind them.”

“Part of ensuring that history does not repeat itself is ensuring that history is taught accurately and thoroughly,” he wrote in his statement.

A part of Weccacoe Playground, where the doll was found, stands on a former African American cemetery, where nearly 5,000 parishioners from the Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church were buried in the 1800s. A memorial to the burial ground has been planned for construction since May.

Tyler said that the initial sighting of the baby doll and noose was a stark reminder of the past violence against African Americans.

“Every culture has an image that strikes the most fear in them,” he said. “For black people, more than a burning cross, more than a swastika, more than even the hood of a Ku Klux Klansman, the image of the noose, and of the noose actually hanging on someone black, is probably one that strikes the deepest within black people.”

City leaders had condemned the incident before the boys came forth. Rue Landau, executive director for the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, decried it as a “heinous hate crime targeting the African American community.” Mayor Kenney called it a “despicable act” and connected it to “the hateful rhetoric of our President.”

Earlier today, the Pennsylvania GOP called on Kenney to apologize to President Trump for associating Trump with the incident. Kenney, however, did not recant his statement or apologize for it.

Like Kenney, Tyler said he originally saw the incident as a reflection of the current political climate.

“I do think the president’s rhetoric has added to the emboldenment of people who carry out racist acts today,” he said.

“His rhetoric and inability to speak out against people who have been doing racist acts has certainly contributed to an atmosphere that has made people of color fearful about their own existence.”

Darrell Clarke, Philadelphia City Council president, criticized the White House for “actively trying to rewrite history” in a tweet.

“If our kids grow up not knowing why hanging a black doll from a noose isn’t a harmless prank, the work of our ancestors will be lost,” he wrote.

Tyler suggested that schools, parents, and broader society alike need to teach children about African American history.

“We need to have a full implementation of black history in our curriculum for both higher and lower grades. When 8-year-olds don’t understand significant acts, it’s not too late to teach them,” he said.

He emphasized that although it can be difficult for parents to broach such a serious subject, it was necessary because children are learning more quickly than ever.

“On one hand, we don’t want to scare our children or make them cynical, angry, or scared. We don’t want to tell our children bad things about the world, so that we can protect their innocence as long as we can,” he said.

“But the sad reality is with social media and the internet, children are seeing images and learning things at a rapid pace. It can never be too early to tell them the reality of these stories.”

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