The three hanging black-faced ghosts triggered a sickening memory of a lynching burned into his memory.
Kevin Upshaw immediately recalled the charred body of a black boy in a scene from the 2007 film, The Great Debaters. The corpse is hanging from a tree, preparing to be lowered into a fire under the cover of night. A group of white town locals have gathered for the ceremony.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” Upshaw said. “It made me sick.”
The lifelong Windsor native was on his way home from work early last Thursday morning, hours before Halloween festivities got underway, when he spotted the three figures hanging from a tree on a property in town. One of the black faces had big red eyes, another had fangs. Each had been strung up by the neck, dressed in blood spattered white cloaks and white hoods.
His girlfriend alerted him to the spectacle. Upshaw, who’s black, said he was shocked but skeptical so he wanted to see the Halloween decorations for himself.
“When I saw them, I thought I’m not walking past this house again and I feared for the safety of my son,” said Upshaw. “I dealt with this kind of stuff all through elementary school and middle school. I had enough.”
Complaint to RCMP
Homeowner Winnifred Sheehy had originally put up one of the ominous black-faced characters before a neighbour complained to her it was offensive and threatening to black people. There was only one at that point, but Sheehy responded by hanging two more.
Upshaw snapped pictures of the scene and a few hours later reported the spectacle to the Windsor RCMP. A Mountie went to the home Halloween evening, but Upshaw said he was shocked that the officer did not ensure the figures were taken down. They remained up until the end of Halloween night.
“The RCMP officer said there was nothing they could do about it because they were on their property,” recalled Upshaw. “He went to talk to her and that was about it. The officer said all that they could do is suggest removing them.”
The officer was black and trained to deal with racially charged incidents, said Upshaw. He said the Mountie sympathized and agreed that the black-faced figures were inappropriate. But Upshaw said the RCMP didn’t go far enough to combat what he called a racist act.
“I told him that I lost all hope and faith in the police, our judicial system and government. If they aren’t willing to do anything to help me, if they’re all saying this is OK, why should I think otherwise?
“I’d just like to open people’s minds to how offensive this whole ordeal has been … I’ve been dealing with this kind of stuff my whole life and nothing changes.”
Homeowner: 'These were ghouls'
Police in Windsor have received more complaints about the matter, Nova Scotia RCMP spokeswoman Jennifer Clarke said in an email Tuesday.
“We are working with the town and the involved parties to investigate the matter and help to resolve it,” Clarke said.
Sheehy said Tuesday that she regrets the figures offended Upshaw and that she’s not a racist person. She also said she absolutely doesn’t regret displaying them. Sheehy said she chose to add more black-face figures to her Halloween display after she had a black friend look at the one ghost and he approved. She said she kept them on display until the end of Halloween night after getting the OK from the RCMP officer who visited her home.
“Me and my eight-year-old stepdaughter grabbed a bedsheet and paint to make them,” said Sheehy. “They’re not people, they didn’t have bodies. These were ghouls; these were demons. No child is going to walk by this house and say, ‘Look there’s a black person.’ We put hours and hours into a much larger Halloween display. You can’t say anything or do anything in this world without offending people.”
Sheehy apologized to Upshaw in a Facebook message to him on Saturday. Upshaw didn’t believe she was genuine in her apology, though he responded and accepted it. He said if she really cared, the display would have been taken down when she was warned the first time or after the Mountie showed up at her door.
'Complete lack of understanding'
Halifax black activist El Jones said the hanging figures were beyond inappropriate, bearing too much resemblance to black lynchings. Jones said it’s unacceptable that Sheehy didn’t heed complaints and remove them. She said it’s also unacceptable how the police dealt with Upshaw’s complaint and failed to remove the figures.
“The police showed a complete lack of understanding of the historical context here,” said Jones. “The RCMP has showed a complete lack of engagement with the black community. By doing nothing, they allowed the black community to become a target.”
Both Jones and Upshaw said the incident points to a larger problem of racism in the community. A cross-burning incident near the town a decade ago led to a man going to prison for inciting hatred. Racism has persisted in Windsor since, they believe.
“The argument in defence of what’s happened here is no big deal, people are too sensitive,” said Jones. “I could accept that this was a mistake. But the homeowners chose not only to display them, but added to it. There’s a provocation there that undercuts their suggestion that there was no ill intent.”
Sheehy’s close friend Ashley Phelan defended the black-faced creations, saying there was nothing offensive about them and that Sheehy and her husband “are the nicest people you would ever meet and not judgmental at all.”
“They’re just Halloween decorations, right?” said Phelan. “There are songs on radio that offend people and they keep on getting played. This whole thing is absolutely ridiculous.”