A noose was left hanging from a tree limb near a black cultural studies center on an American college campus.
That's the scenario that University of Maryland police, with help from the FBI, are investigating as a possible hate crime that may be tied to a similar racial controversy playing out in Louisiana.
Students and faculty at the university's Nyumburu Cultural Center reported the noose to police Friday afternoon, Paul Dillon, a spokesman for the University of Maryland Police Department, told ABC News. The building has been a meeting point for the university's black students and faculty for 27 years. Nyumburu is the Swahili word for "freedom house."
The noose already had been removed by the maintenance staff when police first took the report, but not before an unidentified student took a picture of the scene and e-mailed the image to police. It shows a roughly 3-foot white rope hanging 10 to 12 feet off the ground and ending with a small noose.
Police issued a campuswide e-mail Friday night regarding the discovery and marking the beginning of the formal investigation.
"We will treat this like any other serious crime on campus," Dillon said, "interviewing witnesses and developing a timeline."
It remains unclear when the noose was originally hung from the tree and who may be behind the apparent hate message. Dillon said creating a timeline will be key and might allow investigators to pinpoint surveillance video of the area showing the perpetrator or perpetrators.
There is recent precedent for racially motivated disputes on the Maryland campus. In 1999, police investigated a series of disparaging letters sent to some of the university's black leaders. No charges were filed, Dillon said, but police did "get to the bottom" of the harassing letters.
Dillon also would not rule out a connection between the noose found on the College Park, Md., campus and the ongoing, high-profile racial controversy in Jena, La. Racial tensions remain high in the Louisiana town as sentencing awaits five of six black teenaged students from Jena High School on charges tied to the beating of a white student in December. A sixth student was charged as a minor.
While no motive for the attack was identified, it took place after three nooses were hung from a tree at the high school. The nooses followed a black student's decision to sit down in a place where white students typically gathered. The students accused of placing the nooses in that instance were suspended from school.
On Sunday, The Rev. Al Sharpton called for an investigation into the district attorney prosecuting the "Jena Six" in the alleged attack on the white classmate. Sharpton also said he would be in Jena on Sept. 20 for the sentencing of one of the teens.
"We don't have anything specifically linking this to the 'Jena Six,' but we're not ruling it out," Dillon said.
C.D. Mote Jr., the University of Maryland president, acknowledged the investigation in an open letter to the campus posted on the school's Web site.
"The possibility that this act appears intended to bring to mind the horrific crime of lynching, which is such a terrible and tragic part of our nation's past, is particularly abhorrent," Mote wrote in the letter.
Mote promised resources to the investigation and swift justice for anyone linked to the incident.
"Any person or persons found guilty of this act will be subject to the university's full judicial process and any possible criminal actions."