By Wesley Lowery, the Washington Post

When his boss tossed the noose into his hands, Mikel Neal, a black firefighter in Marion, Ind., had two thoughts.

First, was this a threat? And, second, how would Neal tell his wife about this bizarre act, with its eerie echoes of Marion’s dark past?

Marion, IN firefighter Mikel Neal

Marion, IN firefighter Mikel Neal

“I’m still in shock,” Neal said in an interview late Monday. “I can’t fathom why would someone do what he did.”

Assistant fire chief Rick Backs has since been suspended by the Marion Fire Department; he released a statement apologizing for forming a noose during a knot-tying exercise at the station house Feb. 13…

Backs, the reports suggested, should have known better. Especially in this town. Especially with its history.

In 1930, two young black men were lynched on suspicion of murdering a white man. Their hanging was captured in a gruesome image by a local photographer, a photo that became an iconic depiction of American lynching – and served as inspiration for the song “Strange Fruit.” It was the last recorded lynching in a northern state.

A third teen, James Cameron, was spared, served time in prison and later wrote a book about the experience. He opened a museum dedicated to the thousands of black Americans killed by white lynch mobs, and eventually was pardoned by then Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh (D).

Infamous 1930 photo of two lynching victims in Marion

Infamous 1930 photo of two lynching victims in Marion

Neal himself found it hard to make sense of the incident. He said fellow firefighters present that day immediately reacted with outrage on his behalf. Others insisted it must have been a joke. The fire chief and other city officials took it very seriously.

“I want to apologize, on behalf of myself, to the community for this type of incident even happening,” Marion Fire Chief Paul David told a local TV station

As for Backs, he has stayed out of the spotlight. Other than his initial statement, he has not addressed the allegations publicly. He did respond to requests for comment.

“I sincerely apologize for my actions,” he wrote in the statement released to local media. “I hope this incident can be a reminder to all of us that while we’ve made much progress in our community, issues related to race and equality are still sensitive today and we must take care, in our actions and our words, to always show respect to others.”

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