A Ghost From Our Past

Claude Neal lynching, Marianna, Florida, 1934

by George Little, 10/1/12

      The Jackson County Courthouse in Marianna is, at the time of this writing, in the final stages of exterior remodeling and landscaping, providing a more pleasing appearance to its awkward original design. Gazing upon its new outward appearance recently, my eyes were drawn to the old oak tree in the northeast corner of the square lot. This oak is less majestic than the other old oak trees surrounding the courthouse – and missing a limb. I tried to imagine the horrifying shock of arriving in town early one Saturday morning and seeing the dead and mutilated body of a young African-American man hanging from that tree.

      That is exactly what did happen to a number of Jackson County residents who arrived in Marianna early on a Saturday morning in October of 1934, They were anticipating a day of shopping, a traveling car show, and a political rally with a prominent state law-maker speaking. Instead, they saw the aftermath of the lynching of Claude Neal.

      I have lived in Jackson County much of the time since 1963; yet, until recently, I knew little of the details of this lynching. It is rarely mentioned and never discussed in detail here.

      I know now that Claude Neal was tortured and killed by a small group of men the night before that Saturday morning somewhere near the Georgia border. I know now that a large crowd hoping to be involved gathered somewhere near Greenwood. I know now that a riot ensued for days after. Not a riot by the African-American community in reaction to the lawless act of violence against one of their own, but rather a continuation of white-on-black violence, inspired by a sense of license and empowerment derived from the brief display of the mutilated body on the courthouse square. The riot was conducted mostly by men from out of county, and even out of state, drawn here by the publicity and their insatiable taste for such violence.

      Although I have known people well who likely witnessed this event first hand, none of them ever spoke of it to me. Until recently, what little I had heard was at late-night gatherings of men, involving liquor and gambling and loose talk, where it is understood that things said and done will not be repeated or reported elsewhere. I have only recently learned in detail of the event and this detail was learned from my recent reading of the limited published writings on the subject.

      Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal, by James R. McGovern, was published in 1992. Dr. McGovern, a distinguished history professor at the University of West Florida, was an award winning teacher, scholar and author of seven books and numerous articles. He also served as a Fulbright Professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and as a visiting professor at the Irish National University. (Dr. McGovern died in April of 2012.) His book gives the chilling and nauseating details of a hate-filled mob and the torture and mutilation of a young man by a small 'committee' of this mob.

      Claude Neal, the young African-American lynched, had been accused of the rape and murder of a young white woman. There was some evidence of his guilt, but there was also evidence to the contrary. He never had a trial.

      In October 2011, the Tampa Bay Times posted an excellent, yet chilling, article on the event by its reporter Ben Montgomery. Spectacle: The lynching of Claude Neal was based on dozens of interviews by the writer over two years with the relatives of Claude Neal, residents of Jackson County and several historians. Numerous source documents were also consulted.

      In January 2012, Dale Cox, a native and current resident of northeastern Jackson County, the situs of most of the events leading to the lynching, published a book, The Claude Neal Lynching: The 1934 Murders of Claude Neal and Lola Cannady. Mr. Cox's book is unique, given his knowledge and access to the geographical area and the people involved. It even includes an interview he conducted in the 1980s with one of the men who tortured, murdered, and mutilated Claude Neal.

      Cox's book is well worth reading for this unique perspective and additional information, but has flaws in the arguments put forward to make his points. His dismissal of all earlier writings on the event, including the timely investigation conducted by the NAACP as well as Dr. McGovern's later historical account, is based on an erroneous investment of greater credibility in the perpetrators of the lynching and their family, friends, and neighbors than in the more objective accounts. While Cox is correct that he can give the account from the perspective of these people as no one else can, he perhaps fails to properly weigh the credibility of his eyewitnesses – the very ones who committed or approved of this horrific crime, the very ones needing to provide some justification for it, the very ones blinded by racial hatred - and thus concludes, without convincing argument, that previous writers are wrong on many points.

      Cox places undue emphasis on the brutal killing of Lola Cannady, the young white woman whose death was blamed on Claude Neal. Despite Cox's efforts to make it otherwise, this young woman's death has no historical significance beyond its relationship to the lynching of Claude Neal. Despite Cox's poorly hidden desire to have the reader believe otherwise, Claude Neal was, by our standards of justice and by any true moral compass, an innocent victim of a hate-filled, racially motivated mob. Claude Neal never stood trial. His 'confessions' are highly suspect – the details changed readily to suit his captors. There is a plausible alternative explanation for every piece of evidence against Neal. There is evidence that suggests scenarios other than his guilt. Thus, the crime of historical significance was the brutal torture, mutilation, and lynching of Claude Neal, a man who was denied his day in court and may well have been innocent - not the murder of Lola Cannady. Nevertheless, while Cox's ties to the people involved may make him less than an objective historian of this event, his exclusive information on the event makes the book worthwhile. And, Cox deserves credit for his willingness to openly discuss this history, revealing the hidden secrets of the local community, regardless of the perspective, at a time when this ghost from our past needs to be confronted.

      The most revealing work from an emotional point of view, however, is American Ghost: A Novel, from Simon & Schuster, to be released October 9, 2012. Janis Owens, a novelist with roots in Jackson County, brings to life through her literary skill the likely emotions entangled with the event. She addresses the emotions from the perspective of the families involved as well as the community as a whole, both at the time of the lynching and in the aftermath that continues to date. Janis Owens, following her three prior successful novels set in the area, has written her newest novel loosely based on the lynching of Claude Neal. This book, even prior to its release, has gained much attention and inclusion in prominent reading lists and book clubs, including Good Housekeeping, Elle, People, and Southern Living. It is also a Book of the Month Club selection.

      In the novel, American Ghost, Owens changes the names, places, and many of the circumstances of the historical event; yet captures the essence. Being a native of the area myself and trying to pinpoint her geographical references, I was forced to coin the term 'quantum geography' to describe her skillful prophylactics with respect to anyone's success in that endeavor. Her geographical references at once reveal intimate knowledge of the area and prevent pinpointing of particular places, with only a couple of apparently intentional exceptions.

      In reality, Claude Neal was tortured and killed in Jackson County on the banks of the Chattahoochee River near the Georgia border in 1934. There is no evidence that any other African-Americans were lynched at that time. In Owens' novel, a young African-American named Henry Kite was tortured and killed in 1938 in a fictional town named Hendrix, apparently somewhere near Wewa. In the novel, Henry Kite was clearly guilty of the murder of a white man, but other innocent African-Americans were tortured and killed along with him in the aftermath. Through this plot device, Owens is able to address the killing of innocent African-Americans while avoiding a challenge to the view that the lynched man himself was guilty of murder. Such an approach is quite credible in light of the episodes in Newberry, Florida in 1916; Rosewood, Florida, in 1923; and the more than two thousand lynchings that have occurred in the U.S. since 1865, many of the victims innocent of any crime. This device and many others in the book are used, in this writer's opinion, so that Owens may speak to local residents as well as her world-wide audience – and speak to us in an acceptable and credible way – to help us come to terms with this horrific history.

      A good novel, of course, says different things to different people. It is more a mirror than a painting. When I, a lifelong resident of south Alabama and Northwest Florida, look into the mirror of American Ghost, I see the following.

      With the title “American Ghost”, as well as the story line and character development, Owens informs us that our area, as well as the entire country, has a ghost haunting us from the past. Eighty years of silence is now giving way to an open discussion of the history of racial violence within the community where it occurred. It is not an easy thing to confront. Owens also informs us, though, that the people of Northwest Florida are mostly real people, good people, strong people.

      She does this through the characters of Jolie Hoyt and Sam Lense. Jolie and Sam are unlikely, star-crossed lovers. Jolie is from a family complicit in the lynching and determined to bury its history. Sam is the grandson of the Jewish shopkeeper murdered by Henry Kite on one hand and a historian determined to uncover the history of the lynching on the other hand. Both Jolie and Sam ultimately seek the truth over community acceptance and both take a big hit because of it. Owens also informs us of the strength and character of the people of Northwest Florida through the characters of Hollis and Charley Frazier, African-American brothers who had fled Hendrix the night of the lynching, and who return to reclaim something rightly belonging to their family. The goodness in the people of Northwest Florida, the realness in us, and the strength in us has always been opposed to racial hate. The realness, goodness, and strength of Owens' well-developed characters, as they struggle with their weaker tendencies through the events unfolded in the engrossing plot, inspires our better side.

      Owens' novel has the added bonus of providing deep insight into the true racial and ethnic mix of Northwest Florida. Jews, Christians, African-Americans, Native Americans, poor whites, and wealthy landowning whites, have long mixed their genes in the Florida Panhandle as elsewhere. When we are honest with ourselves, we can come to see racial hatred as a form of self-hatred . . . and our realness, our strength and our goodness may one day overcome it finally and forever. Until then, we live with a ghost that incessantly haunts us. Janis Owens has revealed this ghost to us.

American Ghost: A Novel

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