Remembering The Lynching Of Claude Neal

Oct 27, 2019
Originally published on October 27, 2019 1:54 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A lynching. That's how President Trump characterized the impeachment inquiry in a tweet last week, his lynching. His use of that word in that context angered a great many people who were quick to point out that lynchings were brutal acts of racial terrorism. One of the most horrific lynchings in U.S. history took place 85 years ago this weekend. It was in Florida's Panhandle. A very large crowd gathered to watch. The details are difficult but important to hear. From NPR's Code Switch podcast, Shereen Marisol Meraji introduces us to two people trying to keep that story from being forgotten.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: Only one photo of Claude Neal exists.

BEN MONTGOMERY: (Reading) It was snapped before sun up on October 27, 1934. It shows a thin, short man hanging by his neck from an oak tree in front of the Jackson County Courthouse. The man is naked and mutilated. Blood streaks his skin.

MERAJI: Ben Montgomery wrote about Claude Neal's lynching for the Tampa Bay Times. And here he is reading from one of his stories, titled "Spectacle."

MONTGOMERY: (Reading) His missing fingers and toes were community keepsakes. At the edge of the frame stands a white man wearing a jacket and a hat and a blank stare. The photograph sold for 50 cents on the street that day.

MERAJI: There's not much known about Claude Neal's life. He was a 23-year-old farmhand who lived in Jackson County, Fla. He was married and had a 2-year-old daughter named Allie Mae. There were rumors that he was also seeing a young woman from a neighboring farm named Lola Cannady. Claude was black. Lola was white. And when Lola Cannady was found dead, the county sheriff arrested Claude Neal. He never got a fair trial. Instead, Claude Neal was lynched by a white mob who tortured him to death. And a couple of thousand white people came from nine different states to watch.

LAMAR WILSON: It was advertised like the Super Bowl. And so people came with their food, ready to sit on the line and watch this event, which is sick, right?

MERAJI: Lamar Wilson's from Jackson County, Fla. And he was working on a high school paper when he first learned what happened to Claude Neal. He found a book in the local library called "Anatomy Of A Lynching" by James R. McGovern.

WILSON: And I flipped the pages and started reading the opening pages. And when I saw 1934, I did the math. My grandmother, who was born in 1905 - she would've been 29. She was alive. She happened to be in the car waiting for me, with my great-aunt, her sister. And I got in the car. And I said, Ma Mary (ph), did you know Claude Neal? And I could see her sink in the seat. The whole ride home, they didn't say anything.

MERAJI: Lamar couldn't stop thinking about it.

WILSON: One of those women who taught me how to pray, Mrs. Allie Mae Smith - oh, she's his daughter. I was piecing it together. These were people in my church. And I was like - how do I ask her? I just knew that that was not the right time. And I was too young to process it beyond a report from a book.

(Reading) I told that boy to leave that white girl alone. The only words breaking the silence of the rest of that ride, the only words her brother says at home - I told that boy to leave that white girl alone.

Flash forward, I've written a book. A poem in it about the lynching is nominated for a Pushcart Prize. I feel ashamed that I am benefiting off of this tragedy, and I had to get it out of me. And some small voice said, run.

MERAJI: Journalist Ben Montgomery became Facebook friends with Lamar while he was reporting on what happened to Claude Neal.

MONTGOMERY: And I saw on Facebook that he was going back on October 26 - on the anniversary of the Claude Neal lynching to run the 13- or 14-mile path that the lynchers dragged Claude Neal's body from the Cannady house to the courthouse.

MERAJI: Ben wanted to run, too.

MONTGOMERY: Was this weird? Does this create some kind of journalistic conflict?

MERAJI: He did it anyway.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILLIE HOLIDAY SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

WILSON: Once we got to the courthouse, I just sang "Strange Fruit." And Ben and I, you know, embraced.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit...

WILSON: (Singing) Southern trees bear a strange fruit...

MONTGOMERY: Yeah, yeah, I remember that. What a haunting song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE FRUIT")

HOLIDAY: (Singing) Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.

WILSON: (Singing) In the southern breeze.

MONTGOMERY: There were no signs or placards or, you know, anything like that. There were no bull horns. This was a quiet small memorial.

WILSON: (Singing) From the poplar trees.

MONTGOMERY: He talked. He explained why this is important to remember. We're standing at the base of the tree where Claude Neal's body hung in 1934. And so it was a powerful moment.

MERAJI: Lamar Wilson has gone home to Jackson County, Fla., to run every year for the past five years.

WILSON: And so, for me, what I want is there to be an acknowledgment that that was wrong. I just want there to be a formal apology. This community is owed an apology.

MERAJI: Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.