More than a few times I’ve heard someone standing in the shade beneath outstretched boughs, leaves, and Spanish moss remark, “If that old tree could talk …”
It seems that Arcadia’s majestic centerpiece known as the Tree of Knowledge has come under fire as of late by some who wish to have it cut down, or at least renamed. I hear there’s even an online petition that has garnered some 8,000 “signatures” from many locals and others scattered here and yon in the cyberspace universe of Facebook, some of whom I’m sure have never even laid eyes on the massive old live oak.
The rub for those pushing the petition is the notion/belief/rumor/accusation that it was the sight for lynchings back in the day. The petition has drawn many comments, some of which that are quite insistent, such as, “Ask anybody in this town and they’ll tell you it was used for lynchings; black men were hung for just being black!”
Were there hangings, justified by law, or genuine lynchings in DeSoto County (and Manatee County, which predates what is now DeSoto)? Yes. My grandfather and namesake was born here in 1893 and died before I was born, and he shared with other family members that he’d witnessed a legal hanging on the courthouse property when he was young. I believe it was the last one of that kind here, which took place two days after Thanksgiving, in 1916.
Did any sort of hangings take place from the outstretched limbs of the Tree of Knowledge? It was a 10-year-old oak that was set in place in 1938. I wasn’t around then, but my friend, the late DeSoto County historian Howard Melton was. He graduated from DeSoto High School that very year, a budding journalist who was part of the yearbook committee, and he spent the last few decades of his life collecting and writing about local history in our newspapers, and also published two books on Arcadia and DeSoto County. We have a research library named for him and his wife Velma, in fact. He had no recollections or documentation of hangings or lynchings on that tree. And knowing what a fine Christian man and former pastor he was, his word is good enough for me.
Carol Mahler runs the research library, is a published author, teacher, poet, editor, and member of the DeSoto County Historical Society. She has researched the tree and has written about it in the past, and echoes Melton’s words. Anybody who knows her knows how she leaves no stone unturned when digging for facts, and she published an article recently about how the tree got its name and its origin.
In my opinion, the sprawling centerpiece of our town that is called The Tree of Knowledge does not need removal, nor renaming by those who believe it was used for wrongdoing. It is a symbol of strength and growth for all citizens of our community, whether native or transplants. It has withstood a number of hurricanes and has been a gathering place for generations, and has stood there from the days of the Great Depression until today. And yes, if that old tree could talk, I would truly love to hear about what it has seen in our little town and what it has heard from all those who have passed beneath it.
If there was evidence of any wrongdoing concerning the tree that is in question, I would love to learn of it, and then learn from it. And anyone who believes in what’s right or wrong should feel the same way. People are going to believe what they want to believe, and that is their right. And all this is just my meager two cents’ worth.