In Delco, a political statement or an ugly reminder?

Betty Ann Wilson decries the skeleton George Vucelich displays in his Swarthmore yard. The figure wears an Obama-Biden T-shirt and hangs from a tree. Vucelich, who says he thought the figure would "mildly annoy the Democrats," denies racist intent.
Betty Ann Wilson decries the skeleton George Vucelich displays in his Swarthmore yard. The figure wears an Obama-Biden T-shirt and hangs from a tree. Vucelich, who says he thought the figure would "mildly annoy the Democrats," denies racist intent. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 31, 2013

Calvin Coleman spent part of his 75th birthday Sunday protesting the skeleton in George Vucelich's yard in Delaware County. The cake and scallops dinner would have to wait.

The skeleton hangs from a maple tree. A noose appears to be around its scrawny plastic neck. It also wears an Obama-Biden T-shirt.

"When I first heard of this, I was irate. I believed something like this wouldn't happen in Swarthmore," said Coleman, who is African American and whose family has resided in Delaware County for six generations. "If the skeleton was in a chair, I wouldn't be here."

But the skeleton is not in a chair. It hangs from a tree.

Vucelich, who is white, said he did not put up the skeleton to upset people. "I didn't see the racial connection," he told me. "I thought it would mildly annoy the Democrats."

The skeleton has done far more than that.

Vucelich told me the rope is not around the skeleton's neck, though it certainly appears to be. He told the Delaware County Daily Times that he thought the skeleton was "a joke."

The suggestion of lynching, among the most heinous acts in our nation's troubled racial history, has a way of aggravating ancient wounds.

The cops have been by three times. For almost two weeks, a collection of neighbors - African American and white - have held quiet vigils on the leafy but well-traveled 700 block of Hillborn Avenue, which straddles the line between Springfield and Swarthmore. They hold signs that read "Did you learn nothing from the last 200 years?" and "Mr. Vucelich: Take that lynching down!"

But he has not.

At midday Sunday, I counted the motorists rushing by with thumbs up for the protesters and stopped at two dozen. A few honked, but there was also the occasional scowl. A residential street, even a busy one, is not usually the scene of daily protest.

Law professor Clare Keefe Coleman, who is white and no relation to Calvin, helped organize the demonstrations and contributed Facebook posts. She called the skeleton "a racist act" and put up "I Object!!" fliers on neighborhood trees, only to find them repeatedly shredded. "He has a right to free speech," she told me. "But we have a right to speak back."

On Sunday, 20 people gathered, standing in the street before Vucelich's house but not obstructing traffic, just as the cops instructed. Betty Ann Wilson, Calvin Coleman's sister, refused to look at the skeleton hanging behind her.

"I am filled with rage," she said. "He said this is freedom of speech. Most people don't use freedom of speech in defending a Halloween decoration. I would like him to take a walk in my shoes." Beside her stood Paula Lawrence Wehmiller, an African American Episcopal priest and the granddaughter of a priest from Vicksburg, Miss., who called the skeleton "a wound on all of us."

Vucelich, 59, a Wharton graduate who is currently an unemployed accountant, has lived most his life in the brick twin his parents owned before him. A registered Democrat, Vucelich told me he campaigned for Ed Rendell and Hillary Clinton but supported Mitt Romney last year. Democrats, he told the Daily Times, are "fascists." He told me his neighbors are mostly Democrats and dislike his politics. Two doors down there is an aging Romney sign planted in a yard.

I spent a half-hour talking to Vucelich. We politely debated the placement of the rope, the power of appearances and symbols that harken back to an uglier time.

"I just don't see it," he said repeatedly. "I swear to you I'm not a racist. I'm just somebody who is being pushed too far." He said he felt the protesters tried to get him arrested. He wished neighbors had spoken to him before calling the police. Twice, he thought about taking the skeleton down, but he said people had yelled profanities and sent hate mail. The longer the protests have gone on, the more he has dug in his heels.

"I feel I've been painted into a corner," he said. "You back a rat into a corner, he's going to fight."

Hanging the skeleton in the tree was a challenge, said Vucelich, who suffers from vertigo. He plans to take the skeleton down first thing Friday morning. He has no plans to open his door on Halloween.

The protesters, though, plan to be there Thursday night, handing out candy to any child who asks.


kheller@phillynews.com215-854-2586 @kheller

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|