By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007
University of Maryland senior Ugonna Madueke has a message for whoever hung a noose from a tree at the College Park campus: The dirty deed backfired.
Instead of dividing students and faculty members, the racial incident has opened a dialogue and brought people closer together, the mechanical engineering student said.
"There is unity among us," said Madueke, 21, a native of Nigeria and secretary of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity chapter on campus. "People are still going about their business. There are a lot of emotions, but a lot of different groups of people are standing beside and behind each other to get through this tough situation."
Madueke was among more than 300 students and faculty members who converged on Cole Field House this week for a "speak out" to express their feelings about the noose and to discuss possible solutions to the racism and cultural separatism that led to it.
The crudely tied noose was found hanging from a tree just outside the Nyumburu Cultural Center and the Stamp Student Union on Campus Drive, the college's main thoroughfare.
Nyumburu, Swahili for "freedom house," is home to a student-run newspaper, the Black Explosion, as well as the Black Student Union and other programs affiliated primarily with minority students and faculty members, officials said.
Representatives from the newspaper reported the noose to police Sept. 7. The incident is being investigated as a possible hate crime.
Campus police spokesman Paul Dillon said that when officers arrived, they found that maintenance workers sent by their supervisors had removed and discarded the noose, which apparently had been dangling since late August. Investigators are now interviewing students and reviewing tapes from surveillance cameras.
Nyumburu Associate Director Anne Reese Carswell said a student told her about the noose Sept. 6. The next day, she asked students to photograph and videotape it.
"Several people had apparently seen it, but they didn't do anything," Carswell said. "I think people just didn't know what to do."
Monique Wilson, 19, of Germantown, an English and communications major, was one of the students who contacted police. She said she believes the noose was placed in retaliation for area black college students' support of youths allegedly involved in a racially charged incident in Louisiana. In that case, six black high school students, known as the Jena Six, were charged with beating a white youth late last year during a period of escalating tension after white students hung nooses from a tree at a high school in the small town of Jena.
Howard University students last week rallied on behalf of the Jena Six, and some students at Maryland said they are considering their own show of support for the defendants.
"If it was at any other location on campus and the Jena Six wasn't going on, I think people would think it's just a rope that someone was trying to hang on," said Wilson, editor of the Black Explosion. "But point-blank, it's a noose and it was placed right in front of the cultural center, and I think it was because of the Jena Six."
Tiffany Smiling, 19, a junior from New Jersey majoring in public and community health, said she was initially frightened by the noose but then "gained strength."
"At first, concerns about my safety came to the forefront because I was thinking not only do I have to worry about walking on campus at night as a female . . . also, as an African American, there's this ignorant mentality out there that might try to target me," she said. "Then I decided I can't let anyone impose their ignorance on me. I switched my thinking to make the incident empower me. I decided not to be frightened by ignorance."
University officials said that hate crimes are reported sporadically on the campus but that no other incidents have been reported since school started. The most memorable incident, Dillon said, occurred in 1999 when death threats with racial epithets were mailed to black organizations on campus. The culprits were never identified, Dillon said.
Smiling believes the noose, which recalls the terror that racists wreaked on African Americans before the civil rights movement, was hung to intimidate.
"This was an intentional statement by someone who is threatened and because of that, trying to instill fear in African American students on campus," she said.
At Tuesday night's rally, students wore T-shirts with pictures of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and slogans such as "Reject Hate."
Members of the Asian American Students Union passed out buttons that read, "Terps as One." An antiwar group carried signs that read: "Say NO to racism."
President C.D. Mote Jr. told students that the university owes each student the opportunity to pursue goals without intimidation.
Stephanie Brown, director of the NAACP National Youth and College Division, challenged the students to agitate for change.
"Let's talk about the noose, " she said. "It's about ignorance. It's about repression. It's about keeping one group down so another can rise. If you do nothing, it's almost as if you hung that noose yourself."