For most holidays, artists Bill and Sandy Chestnutt and their sons go all out in decorating the outside of their South Euclid Avenue home.
This Halloween was not that much different than other years, except for one element that was added to the couple’s usually spooky but always benign display: A corpse in a latter stage of decomposition, dressed in a white, hooded sweatshirt, hanging by its neck from a rope wrapped around a tree limb jutting about 20 feet above the couple’s front yard.
The Chestnutts and their son, 21-year-old Rob Crosby, whose idea it was to hang the plastic corpse, which is usually laid out in a coffin as part of the family’s spooky front yard cemetery display, were thrilled with their idea, mainly because the image of a human figure hanging high above the ground really was shocking to anyone who happened to pass by it, either on foot or by car.
But little did any of them know that their otherwise innocent efforts at decorating for Halloween would conjure images of one of the most feared and reviled practices against black Americans since the Civil War and prompt a visit by a Pasadena police officer, who told the Chestnutts that the department had received complaints in the two days that the mannequin had been hanging and asked them to take it down, which they did later that morning.
One person who called the Pasadena Weekly Thursday morning said, “If you go down Euclid, you’ll see what they think of black people in that neighborhood.”
“Oh, my God!” exclaimed Sandy Chestnutt, who has lived in the same house in the predominantly white, upper-middle class neighborhood with her family since 1952. Sandy Chestnutt, who attended nearby Blair High School and now paints for a living, is of Native American ancestry. But she, her husband and their son were apparently oblivious to the historically repugnant image that the display created for others who saw it.
“I just wanted people to be shocked by a body hanging from a tree,” said Crosby. “I was never thinking about anyone’s race.”
“It just figures someone would turn this into something it’s not,” said his mother.
Although only one other person complained to him directly about the mannequin prior to the visit by Pasadena Officer Joe Langoria, Bill Chestnutt, who makes a living sculpting and also graduated from Blair before heading off to Cal Berkeley in the early 1970s, said he would comply with the officer’s request.
“So, we’ll take it down,” Bill Chestnutt said. “Just to keep people happy, we’ll take it down.”
But the anonymous caller to the paper, the people who called police and the person who complained in person about the display weren’t the only ones concerned about the lifeless figure hanging over the Chestnutt’s lawn for a few days last week.
Parents of children attending Blair High a few blocks away, which has a large number of African-American students who either walk or drive past the couple’s home to get to school, were also upset, likening the image to a lynching.
“If you are walking by, you can see what it is, but if you are driving by, I can see how people would get the wrong impression, because you just see a dark figure up there,” Bill Chestnutt said in hindsight.
“The shock value of the corpse is all it is. I find it way amazing that people try to turn it into what it’s not,” said Sandy Chestnutt.
Police, according to Cmdr. Marilyn Diaz, received two calls Thursday morning and dispatched Langoria to the scene.
“To my knowledge, this is the first time I ever got a call of this nature,” Diaz said. “We can’t force them to remove it. So we advised them that people were beginning to have problems with it.”
Diaz said Langoria told the couple that “the display could put the family in danger from those who misunderstood its meaning.”
One person who saw it called the display “repulsive.”
“My daughter saw it when I was driving her to school,” said Chalaun Sailor. “She asked me, ‘Why is there a black man hanging from that tree?’ I thought it was repulsive. It’s unfortunate that in 2005 people have that mentality.”
Ayonna Hammond who, like Sailor is African American, moved from Kentucky to a home a few blocks from the Chestnutts.
“I grew up in the South and I have never seen anything like that,” Hammond said. “My first impression was disbelief and anger. I can’t believe that in such a progressive state like California someone would think that’s OK. There is no way anyone over the age of 5 would think that is OK. I would ask them what part of Halloween are they trying to represent? When have you ever seen a skeleton with a noose around his neck?”
The Chestnutts said their immediate neighbors had no problems with the display, but one man who did not live in the neighborhood and was doing work on a house near the Chestnutt’s home, was unequivocal in his observation.
“It’s a black person hanging,” Edwin Benavides said simply. “It doesn’t look good.”
Nearly 5,000 black men and women were lynched in the South between 1880 and 1960 for violating “lynch laws,” a set of unwritten rules in the Deep South designed to oppress African Americans. During that era, a black person could be lynched for anything from questioning a white man to looking at a white woman to attempting to vote.
In March, the US Senate formally apologized for not passing anti-lynching laws during the Jim Crow Era. However, 12 senators, including Trent Lott of Mississippi and Orrin Hatch of Utah, did not vote for the bill.
Sandy Chestnutt initially reacted defensively to the claim that the display was racist. But, eventually, she said she could see what others were talking about.
“I feel kind of hurt that people would turn something like this around,” Sandy Chestnutt said. But, she said, “I can understand why people are offended. You do have to be sensitive to other people’s viewpoints.”