More than a century ago, gold miners settled in an area in Northern California known as Hangtown, where adventurers sought fortunes by panning for gold and vigilante justice dispensed to criminals gave the town its morbid renown.
This week the past caught up with the present in the town, now known as Placerville, when the City Council voted to remove the image of a noose tied to a tree branch from its official logo.
The Council met on Tuesday, using the modern equivalent of the public square: a Zoom meeting. More than 173 citizens lined up to speak on the virtual call, with people allotted a minute each to make their case.
Over more than three hours, some callers said the noose was a racist symbol that needed to be discarded. Others said the city had no right to “erase history.” Some spoke forcefully about the national conversation around racism, and others about how a vote to remove the noose would be caving to “cancel culture.”
Kara Taylor, the vice mayor of Placerville, said during the hearing that the Council’s job was not to fight change, but to navigate it. She said the city, which lies about 40 miles northeast of Sacramento, had a responsibility to promote itself as safe and welcoming.
If it did not, she said, “that is a fail on our part.” The five council members voted unanimously.
The town meeting took place amid a national backdrop of racial reckoning and protests over police mistreatment of Black people. Cities, schools, and athletic teams are among the institutions that have taken a harder look at their names, images and mascots, including those that use Native American imagery, by changing names or modifying official documents.
During the Placerville meeting, council members said objections to the noose element of the logo, designed in the 1970s, had been made before, including last summer during nationwide protests against racism. But the issue was shelved because a public hearing was complicated by coronavirus pandemic restrictions.
In the recorded Zoom meeting, published on the Placerville website, council members described the decision as a “rebranding” or “refresher” of the city’s look while still wanting to balance the attraction that the city presents as a vestige of the state’s gold mining past.
The California gold rush of 1848 started not far from modern Placerville, when a man named John Marshall found flecks of gold at a mill in Coloma, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, prompting a mass influx of fortune seekers.
The rush found its way to a place about six miles away that became known as Old Dry Diggins, where in 1849, a group of citizens demanded that three men accused of robbing a miner be hanged from a large oak. The town became known as Hangtown.
By 1854, it was the third-largest town in California, and as the population grew so did opposition to the name, with members of the Methodist Episcopal Church among the agitators. The town was renamed Placerville that year, the city’s website says.
The stump from the original hanging tree is said to be in the cellar of a bar on Main Street named The Hangman’s Tree. The site has become a tourist attraction, and the town known for its historical atmosphere and style.
After the vote, a city official said the new logo had not yet been designed but work would begin to remove the noose from the logo, which shows a tree branch behind a bent-backed miner panning for gold. By Thursday, it had disappeared from the city’s website.
The logo is used on letterheads, city stationery and documents, business cards and some public works vehicles. Mayor Dennis Thomas said on Thursday that the new logo would most likely look just like the old one, but without the noose. The changes would cost about $3,500, he said.
According to city data, more than 77 percent of the residents of Placerville are white. Less than 1 percent are Black.
In the meeting, many of the speakers referred to the current national discourse taking place in other parts of the country.
A woman who identified herself as Kate in El Dorado County noted that similar scrutiny was taking place among schools and institutions elsewhere. She said Placerville needed to convey a more “welcoming” image and change with the times, “without the nod to vigilante justice.”
Another woman, who identified herself as Suzette, said the Council did not have “the right to erase our history” based on what she called “false pretenses of racism.” She said the Council was “admitting guilt on behalf of us all.”
Other speakers mentioned the protests last year that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis to make competing arguments about the symbolism of the city logo. “The noose represents law and order,” one man said. Others argued that the noose reflected the nation’s history of hatred and enslavement of Black people and mob violence.