At 7 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 3, Errol Madyun, an ironworker foreman, arrived for the day's work at a job site near Pittsburgh to discover a surprise. "Right where my materials were," says the 53-year-old father of four, "there was a hangman's noose." For Madyun, an African-American, the message of intimidation was clear. "We all understand what that means, and [whoever left it] knew we'd be using those materials first thing in the morning," he says. "I was incensed. I was angry."

While nobody knows who might have left the noose at Madyun's worksite, or why, the FBI is now investigating. And, unfortunately, it's not the agency's only similar inquiry. In the wake of the Jena Six case—which drew national attention after three nooses were hung from a tree at a Louisiana high school—the ugly and, so it seemed, dormant, symbol of racial hatred seems to be undergoing an resurgence. On July 15 an African-American cadet at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., found a noose placed among belongings in his duffle bag aboard a ship. In the racially mixed Long Island city of Hempstead, N.Y., a custodial worker discovered a noose in the local police station's locker room. The reaction? "Shock, anger, deep pain," says Hempstead's Deputy Police Chief Willie Dixon, 57. "To do something like that, you have to feel poison and venom in your heart."

Since Sept. 20 there have been at least 25 incidents in which nooses have been left in public places, and tension over the potent symbol has led to battles over Halloween displays of hangmen. Some nooses are undoubtedly copycat pranks by teens who don't really understand the symbol's scathing history. A number, says Rachel E. Sullivan, a sociology professor at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, may be opportunistic attempts to cause fear or intimidation in specific individuals. "I think in a lot of cases, these are personal vendettas that became very racialized," she says. "What's the best way to threaten an African-American? Well, use a noose."

Others suspect the outbreak may be a manifestation of a harder-to-define, but growing, unease among Americans about everything from illegal immigration to the war in Iraq. "Historically the noose symbolizes the illusion of white supremacy in America," says John Dovidio, a Yale psychology professor and author of books on contemporary racism. "Right now we have a lot of economic, political and international uncertainty. When people feel less in control of their lives, they try to feel better by picking on other people."

Despite this recent spate of ugly incidents, one thing seems clear: Some intended victims refuse to be intimidated. At High Point, N.C.'s T. Wingate Andrews High, when four nooses were found on campus Sept. 21, within hours students of all races at the predominantly African-American school put up more than 100 antiracism posters around the campus, with such slogans as "United We Stand, Together We Can." The incident at her school "made us all come closer together, and stronger," says junior Hayley Ruppard, 16. "I think that's the best way to prevent this kind of thing from happening again."

  • Contributors:
  • Reported by Molly Lopez/New York City,
  • Ellen Shapiro/New York City.