ARCADIA — A Change.org petition has been making its way around social media calling for a name change of an almost-century-old oak tree, called the “Tree of Knowledge,” in Arcadia.
The change is being requested on the belief that the tree was used to hang people — an accusation that a local historian and the mayor say is false.
The name of the tree dates back to the early 1900s. The current tree that stands was planted in the 1930s, according to Carol Mahler of the DeSoto County Historical Society.
The petition, titled “Stand to Change the hateful ‘Tree of Knowledge’ to ‘The Tree of Life,’” was started by Christian Hilaire.
Hilaire could not be reached for comment but wrote on the petition page, “I think now, May 29, 2020, in light of recent events and circumstances, is a better time than ever to bring back the proposition to change ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ (A.K.A. “The Hanging Tree”) to the ‘Tree of Life’ in Arcadia, Florida.”
Currently, 8,789 people have signed it with a goal of 10,000.
“The tree standing in Arcadia right now as a town monument represents a disgusting history, and I feel that it is a perfect representation of the deep hatred that is embedded in the root-system of places like Arcadia,” Hilaire wrote.
Hilaire, who wrote he grew up in Arcadia, stated that “Through personal, first-hand experience, there is nothing but negativity spewed through a monument the sort of the ‘Tree of Knowledge.’
“There is absolutely no place in America for any monument that stands for something as disgusting as the (use of) lynchings, even if the ones protecting it protect it under the sentiment of ‘you can’t erase history.’”
The tree has long-been rumored to have been used for hanging people in the town, but Mahler said the rumor is not true.
“Records do not reveal it was ever used as a ‘hanging tree,’” Mahler wrote in a March 23 Facebook post on the Historical Society Facebook page.
Mahler went on to write that criminals were executed at the county jail built at the southeast corner of North Brevard Avenue and East Hickory Street.
Mahler cited an Aug 15, 1928, DeSoto County News report on Dave Miller, who was convicted of committing two murders and was hanged on a gallows that stood just east of the county jail, within an enclosure, and the execution (was) private.
“I don’t understand the objection to the name ‘Tree of Knowledge’ given to the oak more than a century ago because of the frequent campaign oratory beneath its boughs,” Mahler told the Sun.
“In December 1981, under the ‘Tree of Knowledge,’” Mahler said, “Mayor Eugene Hickson — Arcadia’s first African-American mayor and member of the city council — with Rev. Fred Spencer, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, held a prayer service for the safe rescue of Brigadier General Jimmy Dozier after he was kidnapped by terrorists in Italy.”
On the petition, Hilaire wrote, “‘The Tree of Knowledge’ is the perfect first step (for) change in the sentiment of Arcadia, something that is much needed.”
In the petition, Hilaire also called for followers to put pressure on city officials on ways to help the cause, including Arcadia Mayor Robert W. Heine Jr.
“I am very much aware of the petition going around on Change.org,” Heine said. “I do not agree with it nor support it.
Heine told the Sun he would oppose any actions against the tree.
“If anyone came to a City Council meeting making a request to change the name of the ‘Tree of Knowledge,’ or cutting it down, I would vehemently oppose it and vote against any such action,” Heine said. “The rumors and innuendos going around about the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ in the City of Arcadia history are completely false.”
To view the petition, visit: bit.ly/2YiShTc