I lived in Hays, Kansas throughout college but I was shocked to find out there was a road with the official name of "Noose Road" in Hays. My first thought was of Daniel Tosh and his television show Tosh.0. More specifically, his segment Is It Racist? This thought produced a question: Is the name Noose Road racist?
Before I attempt to answer this question, let's examine what it means to be racist. The word itself is confusing. The etymology of the word "racist" dates back to 1932.
From race + -ist. Racism is in use by 1928, originally in the context of fascist theories, and common from 1936. These words replaced earlier racialism (1882) and racialist (1910), both often used early 20c. in a British or South African context.
If we examine the concept "racist" then we must examine the many words that lie behind it. In The Philosopher's Toolkit: How to Be the Most Rational Person in Any Room produced by The Great Courses, Dr. Patrick Grim states:
“Concepts are what we think with.”
"We use words to express concepts, but words are different than the concepts they express."
"Because concepts and words are different, a single concept may be expressed by many different words. Even more importantly, very different concepts may lie behind the same word."
The goal here is to make sure the words in the definition of "racist" have one meaning. The word "racist" is defined as a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another. Within the definition itself, we find other distinct words and concepts. In order to understand this definition, we must first logically deconstruct the other concepts within it. In the diagram below (Figure 1), I have attempted to deconstruct the definition of the word "racist".
After reviewing the diagram, I attempted to synthesize what it truly means. My definition of the word "racist" looks more like the following:
Preconceived judgment and unjust treatment of a person based on race or skin color by an irrational (not logical or reasonable) individual or group who believes they are of a superior race.
To be a racist is determined by the actions of individuals or a group who devalue the worth of a person or group solely based on race or skin color. Those who do racist things possess a preconceived notion of superiority, one that is devoid of reason. A racist individual will perform actions against an individual or group - actions they would not do to a person or group with skin color of their choosing - simply because the individual or group is of a skin color they devalue.
If we determine someone or a group to be racist based on their actions, then that person or group must have done something against another person or group simply because they have a different skin color. A logical test would be to see if the person or group performs an action because of skin color or race alone. A good example of this is provided by John McWhorter in Racist Is a Tough Little Word:
"Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called out [Nancy] Pelosi for her criticisms of the Squad as unduly demanding in their political positions. Ocasio-Cortez appended that Pelosi’s critique is of people “of color,” which is code for Pelosi being, here, racist on some level, although I presume Ocasio-Cortez thinks the racism is unintended or subconscious.
So Ocasio-Cortez gets in that the Squad is composed of women of color. But if Pelosi would likely respond the same way to four Jill Steins, then what is the meaning of the reference to race? Is the idea that Pelosi should hold her tongue simply because the Squad members aren’t white? Ocasio-Cortez is here appealing to another 2.0 meaning of racist—that which is offensive, for any reason, to people of a race. The Squad doesn’t like Pelosi’s critique, understandably. But the question is: Is that critique “racist” because four “racial” women don’t agree with it? Here, Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad allude to the subjectified meaning of racist, which can be hard to square with the core meaning of the word (believing that people of a category are inferior).
Noose Road was named based on the 1869 killing of three Buffalo soldiers of the 38th U.S. Infantry at Fort Hays. For those unaware, Buffalo soldiers were African American soldiers who mainly served on the Western frontier following the American Civil War. James N. Leiker informs us in Black Soldiers at Fort Hays, Kansas, 1867-1869 A Study in Civilian And Military Violence:
"[African American soldiers] Luke Barnes, Lee Watkins, and James Ponder never saw their case brought to trial. During the evening of 6-7 January, a mob stormed the jail, overpowered the guards, and seized the prisoners from their cells. One account reported the mob's size as between seventy-five and one hundred, all with masks or darkened faces. The vigilantes hanged the men from the ties of a railroad bridge half a mile west of town. Union Pacific employees discovered their bodies the next morning."
Leiker comments on the racial norms of the time:
"The likelihood that Barnes, Watkins, and Ponder would have been convicted and executed anyway illustrates this incident's strong racist motives. Hays City's high number of homicides shows remarkable tolerance for violence-except when perpetrated by blacks. Rather than simply hanging three killers, the lynching issued a statement that racial norms concerning troublesome blacks would be enforced illegally if necessary."
After this incident, the vast majority of soldiers relocated elsewhere. Black families were also forced out. When some returned in 1871, Leiker informs us that, "four residents were arraigned for invading the home of an elderly black woman and raping her. Whites expressed disgust that the men were arrested on the word of colored people."
In a recent article, Leiker summarized what happened as follows:
"For the record, this event is well documented. In 1869, Privates Luke Barnes, Lee Watkins, and James Ponder of the 38th Infantry at Fort Hays, a buffalo soldier regiment, were arrested for killing a Union Pacific watchman named James Hayes. The three never saw their case brought to trial for on the evening of January 6-7, a mob wearing masks and blackface stormed the Hays jail, seized them from their cells, and hanged them from the ties of a railroad bridge west of town. This was not the first nor would it be the last time that violence erupted between armed black men and white Hays civilians. Four months after the deaths of Barnes, Watkins and Ponder, angry black troops fired into private homes and businesses in the downtown area, which in turn prompted a gang of vigilantes to drive Hays City’s few black civilians out of town, murdering two in the process."
On June 9, 2020, Greg Schwartz triggered a discussion in a Facebook post. He argued that it was time to change the name of Noose Road. Schwartz stated,
"In light of all that is going on in our country that has come to the forefront after George Floyd was murdered, I am reminded of something right here in our own backyard of Hays, Kansas that has always bothered me."
What is odd to me here is that you would think the road was named in 1869 or even 1889. However, the road was named in 1989. Noose Road also ran parallel to an old wooden bridge named Hangman's Bridge over Big Creek. This is the spot where the three Buffalo soldiers were hung by a white mob.
Margaret Allen writes in Noose Road Under Fire:
Noose Road officially got its name in 1989. Then-Sheriff Bruce Hertel asked the county to name all the county roads to help ambulances and law enforcement.
Hays attorney John T. Bird remembers the naming process. In an open letter to the Ellis County Commission, Bird also asks the commissioners to change the name of Noose Road.
“My family has owned and lived on land on this road for more than 100 years, and I have regretted that I did not protest more loudly when the naming of it took place,” Bird wrote.
“Many years ago,” he continued, “when Ellis County was called upon to assign names to all of the roads and streets in the County, one of your predecessors thought it would be clever to name the road that begins at the 12th Street bridge and runs west to Yocemento, formerly known as old Highway 40, Noose Road. The name selected was racist then and it is racist now.”
If you accept my definition for "racist" as: Preconceived judgment and unjust treatment of a person based on race or skin color by an irrational (not logical or reasonable) individual or group who believes they are of a superior race. Then you would need proof of preconceived judgment and unjust treatment simply because of skin color or race.
If three African American soldiers were killed in an unjust way (white mob forcefully removes them from a jail cell and murders them); and they were murdered in a way that was irrationally conducted simply to kill African American people; and they were hung by the mob by a noose (a noose served as the mechanism for killing the three men); and as Leiker remarked, “Rather than simply hanging three killers, the lynching issued a statement that racial norms concerning troublesome blacks would be enforced illegally if necessary."; then the act of killing each of the three men was racist.
If you still do not follow my reasoning, then let's look at a couple key questions. First, would they have been killed by this angry white mob if they were white? The answer is no. Second, would this situation have escalated the way it did if they were white? My assumption here is no. Therefore, this was a racist act made in 1869.
But this still does not answer my initial question: Is the name Noose Road racist?
If the incident took place in 1869 and the road possessed a different name from its construction until 1989, then why was the road named Noose Road when it was? Why did the name change to Noose Road 120 years later? There appears to be no rational reason. A road was named 120 years after the incident by the mechanism for killing three African American men. To test this, let's examine different mechanisms of death and use them for naming roads:
Gas Chamber Road in Germany (completely racist).
Cancer Road in Hays, Kansas (Would you use this name if you had a family history of deaths due to cancer?).
Coronavirus Avenue in China.
So, why the name and why the name in 1989? If the argument is that the name was chosen to commemorate or honor the three African American soldiers who were murdered using a noose on Hangman's Bridge, then why not name the road Buffalo Soldiers Road or Infantry Road (or insert the last name of one of the three)?
I understand the need to commemorate history. However, history is not honored when verbiage like "Noose Road" is used as a name. The historical significance is honored in academic writings such as Leiker's 1997 piece. The only thing historically significant about the naming of Noose Road is that Hays, Kansas will forever be remembered for choosing to name a road, Noose Road.
If a name is chosen by an individual or group to remember an incident that took place 120 years prior and the name reflects a mechanism that killed three individuals by a racist act (when other historically significant names were available), then yes, the name (and naming of) Noose Road is racist.
Although I agree with John Bird's statement - "The name selected was racist then and it is racist now.” - I applaud the good people of Hays for quickly rectifying this issue as Noose Road will receive a new name. This quick response to a racist act shows why the people of Hays are good people. Hays has always remained a special place for me. There will always be exceptions, but overall, Hays is an amazing town.
The response and the GoFundMe campaign A Road Taken; A Wrong Righted demonstrates how one great community is coming together to move in the right direction. What Hays did should serve as an example of how a community should act when dealing with a racist action. Hays listened to concerned citizens and made a swift decision (and the right decision).
This is an example of a community and government partnership to break through systemic racism. What they did is show us an approach for how to improve in critical times. The naming of Noose Road is not something to celebrate, but the swift action taken by the Ellis County Commission is a best practice for local government to address systemic racism. It is these decisions that make me a proud former resident of Hays.
Just for fun, let's examine the counterarguments to Greg Schwartz Facebook post.
Note. Logical fallacies are common errors of reasoning.
A tautology is an expression or phrase that says the same thing twice, just in a different way. The following rebuttal contains this type of fallacy (among many others).
An ad hominem is an attack on an opponent's character rather than an answer to the contentions made. For this logical fallacy, let's use the same rebuttal:
seriously, enough of the politically correct, woke, leftist agenda trying to change history just so you can feel better. Might consider using your time to make everyone's lives better going forward.
Instead of addressing the argument proposed by Schwartz, this rebuttal attacks him and suggests that Schwartz is simply motivated by personal reasons (hence the use of the word "agenda"). Thus, Schwartz must have an invalid argument.
Note. Agenda is defined as the underlying intentions or motives of a particular person or group.
A false dichotomy is either or reasoning. It is a situation in which two alternative points of view are presented as the only options when others are available. This brings us to the next counterargument, which leaves no room for option c. The argument is as follows:
Option a. Change the name but force people to pay for new documents.
Option b. Leave the name (even though it's racist) so people don't have to change documents.
This leaves out option c, which you can see here A Road Taken; A Wrong Righted.
A slippery slope fallacy occurs when someone makes a claim about a series of events that would lead to one major event, usually a bad event. The next rebuttal provides the perfect example of this fallacy.
The argument is as follows: If we change the name of this road, which is a historical marker, then it will ultimately lead us into a fascist society.
There are so many holes in this argument. First, the name and the action of naming the road is racist (see above: So, is it racist?). The comment - "When did the word "Noose" become a racist slang? I believe it refers to a form of capital punishment last I knew." - ignores the connection to Hangman's Bridge and the entire story behind it. Second, this action (changing the name of the road) is not to make some "butt hurt liberals" happy. It's to change the name of a clearly racist action (this is coming from a Libertarian... not a Liberal or Conservative). Third, the naming of the road in 1989 does not constitute this as a historical marker. Schwartz accurately refuted this argument in his Facebook post and Leiker brilliantly summarized this in Leiker: More history of Hangman’s Bridge:
Facts are stubborn things. How much the lynching influenced the naming of the road is a matter of speculation, but the historical evidence is pretty clear that when it comes to the current dialogue about race in America, Hays is far from immune. Whether that should enter into the county commissioners’ decision to rename is up to them. Still, I’d like to offer an informed opinion. History should not be confused with commemoration. Nothing is learned about the past by gazing upon a statue or reading a street sign; that’s what books and libraries are for. Commemoration serves a different purpose, to remind us about the values of the community that named the street or erected the monument in the first place. It’s a way of saying in stone or in bronze “This is what we regard as important.” However, commemoration is never permanent. Communities have the right to reassess their values and occasionally decide “that’s not who we are anymore.”
A red herring occurs when something is introduced to an argument that misleads or distracts from the relevant issue.
Instead of addressing the issue at hand, the argument above inserts misleading discussion in an attempt to distract people from the argument. Schwartz proposed changing the name of Noose Road. This rebuttal goes after the Democratic party and brings the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) into the discussion.
"We see what we believe, and not just the contrary; and to change what we see, it is sometimes necessary to change what we believe.”― Jeremy Narby
I personally do not know any of the individuals involved in this discussion. I do not know Greg Schwartz, Jim Leiker, or anyone involved in this discussion. I was simply inspired by Greg Schwartz and his Facebook post and the great people of Hays. With that said, I will not respond to rebuttals to my argument described here unless they are objective and rational arguments. I will not waste my time with those driven by stupidity.