FORT WORTH, Texas -- Michael and Shirlee Wilkinson won’t be winning any yard of the month awards. A sign on the barn-tin fence that surrounds their Eastside Fort Worth property reads, “Notice: open shooting area.” Stationed just above that warning is a cross with the message, “Jesus is Lord.” Seven or eight other signs festooned throughout the Meadowbrook-area corner lot warn against trespassers, promote the neighborhood watch, support the police, and – save for the two colorful “welcome” posters hanging near the front door – all communicate the same basic idea: Go away.
Several security cameras are strategically positioned around the perimeter of the Wilkinsons' sizable property. There’s no way to even walk up to the front door without entering a code in a keypad that opens a gate.
A sign reading "Warning - Open Shooting Area" appears at a home in Eastside Forth Worth, Texas, in this image from June 2020. (Eric Griffey/Spectrum News)
Despite the Wilkinsons' obvious aversion to visitors, the elderly couple drew unwanted attention and shocked area activists when a noose appeared hanging from a building on the back of their lot. After a concerned neighbor posted a picture of the dangling noose to the Facebook group Enough is Enough Fort Worth! – a community of protesters, activists, and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement – one of the members called the police. The noose, which was fully illuminated by a security light at night, was taken down that afternoon.
A relative who is watching the house for the couple said they have been out of town. The house sitter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was her husband who removed the offending rope.
“You never want to see that, but especially not right now,” she said of the current racial tension around the country. “I think he just hung it there to let people know to stay away from his stuff."
“It’s bad,” she continued.
After Spectrum News left their number with the house sitter, we messaged Michael Wilkinson on Facebook. Though he didn’t respond to either of our attempts to reach him, he did reply to a Facebook message written by one of the outraged members of Enough is Enough Fort Worth!
“Ma’am, by no means am I racist,” he wrote on Friday. “Never have been, never will be. Only reason that hangman’s noose is on my property is to deter crime. It’s been up there for three years. If I would have known it would upset people, I would have taken it down. Sorry to have upset you.”
Most members of the community weren’t convinced by Wilkinson’s apology. Gordon Sims, who has lived in or near the neighborhood most of his life, took photos of the noose that were posted to social media. He was also one of the people who called the police.
“There’s no reason to hang that noose other than to intimidate people of color,” he said. “It almost seems like bait. It’s a predominantly black and minority neighborhood. Naturally, it would lead you to think there were ill intentions behind it.”
Daniel Segura, a spokesman for the Fort Worth Police Department, said the noose did not rise to the level of legal intimidation because no one was directly threatened. He also confirmed Shirlee Wilkinson, whose Facebook profile lists the police department as her job, does not work for the city.
Several states have laws on the books that specifically address nooses as a symbol of intimidation, but Texas does not. The Anti-Defamation League, a national anti-hate organization, lists nooses among its symbols of hate, adding, "the hangman's noose has come to be one of the most powerful visual symbols directed against African-Americans, comparable in the emotions that it evokes to that of the swastika for Jews.”
Though the area is now an eclectic mix of all races, one nearby resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the neighborhood used to be mostly white and middle class. The Wilkinsons, the neighbor speculated, might not be adjusting to living near people of color.
A wooden cross proclaiming "Jesus is Lord" appears at a house in Eastside Forth Worth, Texas, in this image from June 2020. (Eric Griffey/Spectrum News)
“There weren’t a lot of people from the other side of the tracks,” the neighbor said.
Patti Kirkey, the communications director for the West Meadowbrook Neighborhood Association, said no one had ever brought the noose to the association’s attention until now.
“Obviously, it doesn’t reflect positively at all,” she said. “As a property owner, you have the right to do what you want on your property –– we’re not an HOA or anything like that –– but I would hope that people would be respectful. If they’re hateful … I would hope that those kinds of views would not be out on public display to intimidate, cause distress, or hurt people."
She went on to add that she’s worried about the negative attention that sort of outward aggression could bring to the neighborhood.
“To have something like that when people are hurting, and there’s so much tension and a need for change, it’s not a good idea to put something like out there,” she said. “I think they’re inviting trouble.”
Last last week, Sims created a petition on Change.org urging city officials to make the display of a hangman’s noose illegal. At the publication time, the petition had reached 155 signatures.