When Anderson County Precinct 2 Commissioner Rashad Mims had an oak tree removed – one of hundreds in his near-14 years as a commissioner – he figured it was just another job.
As commissioner, Mims said, county code requires him to keep roads safe and free from obstructions. Age had hollowed out most of the trunk, he said, and passing trucks and storms had knocked large, brittle limbs onto County Road 2608, roughly 20 miles northwest of Palestine.
But Mims soon learned there was more to this story. The “Jackson Oak,” had been a part of the Bethel community for more than a century. When residents learned of the tree's removal, some were outraged. A few called Mims' office; others took to social media.
“Thank you, Mr. Mims,” Wanda Johnson posted on Facebook. “Destroying a piece of history, and for what? Why didn't you check with the community before cutting down a piece of history?”
The tree's history, however, has more than one meaning. Unsubstantiated stories of African-Americans from the nearby plantation being hanged on the tree have passed through the community for decades.
Some charged the removal of the Jackson Oak by Mims, who is African American, was racially motivated.
Ridiculous, said Mims.
“I'm the least racially motivated person you'll meet,” Mims told the Herald-Press Thursday. “My concern is for the safety of residents, pure and simple.”
Mims said had he known of the significance of the tree to the community, he may have handled things differently. Still, he said, the tree would have had to come down, as it posed an immediate safety hazard.
Additionally, had an accident occurred after Mims learned of the tree's condition, the county would have been liable for injuries and damages.
State Forester Buster Robinson said he wishes Mims would have called him prior to cutting the tree down.
“It's impossible from the pictures, now that the tree is down, to say whether it was significantly dead,” Robinson, whose family owns adjacent property, told the Herald-Press. “I do understand why he removed it for safety, though. I'm surprised it lived as long as it did, with cars running over its root system all day.”
Tennessee Colony Fire Chief Eddie Crockett said he, and other area fire chiefs, are thankful the tree has come down.
“That was a real safety hazard,” Crockett told the Herald-Press. “Mims has been very proactive in removing dead trees in the area, and it has really helped the area fire departments, and kept the community safer.”
Jennifer Cummings, who grew up in the area and is administrator for the “Dogwood Tea” Facebook group, said the community's biggest beef with Mims isn't the tree – it's communication.
“I'm not an arborist, but I do know the hearts of the people out there,” Cummings told the Herald-Press. “People feel as if Mims was speaking at them, rather than with them about this matter.”
Mims said he welcomes residents to call with their concerns. So far, however, only two residents have called about the tree removal. Mims can be reached at 903 723-7820.
“I do hear what they're saying,” Mims said. “I had much of the tree brought to the Bethel Community Center, and taped off, so residents can come get some wood for crafts or souvenirs.”
Mims said he looks forward to hearing more from the community.