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The Lynching of Claude Neal

The Lynching of Claude Neal by Dr. Marvin Dunn 

 

Claude Neal’s body hangs from an oak tree at the Jackson County Courthouse

It was one of the most chilling and notorious lynchings in United States history. The lynching took place in Marianna, the county seat of Jackson County, on October 27, 1934, relatively late in the lynching era. The fact that it was publicized in advance, drawing thousands of people to the county even before the lynching occurred, outraged the nation and drew international attention to America’s race problems. The viciousness that accompanied this protracted murder was prompted by the fact that Claude Neal was believed to have raped and murdered a young white girl. 

Lola Cannady

Events leading to the Neal lynching began on October 19, 1934, when the badly mutilated body of a twenty- year- old white woman was discovered in a shallow grave not far from her family home. Her name was Lola Cannady. She had gone out that afternoon to water the family’s hogs and failed to return.  Early the following morning, her body was found beneath a dead log covered with pine boughs. 

Spot where Lola’s body was found

She had been raped and bludgeoned to death with a hammer. Her father reported that she had been so severely choked that her eyes were coming out of their sockets.

victim’s mother discovers daughter’s body

Claude Neal, a black farmhand whose aunt lived across the road, was arrested. Neal, then twenty-three years old, was no stranger to the dead girl. He had grown up with her. His aunt, Annie Smith, owned about forty acres of property that were close to the Cannady home, and Neal sometimes stayed with his aunt. 

Neal signed a confession, but some blacks believed the confession had been coerced. It would not have been the first time a lynching victim was coerced into signing his own death warrant. There was a remarkable effort by law enforcement officers to save Neal’s life as a mob developed that was bent upon finding Neal and lynching him.

For his own protection, Neal was moved several times as the mob learned of his whereabouts and showed up to capture him.  He ended up in a jail in Brewton, Alabama, 130 miles away from Jackson County. Word of his being there got out, and a mob of one hundred white men stormed the Brewton, Alabama jail, took Neal and returned him to Jackson County.[i] The people who took Neal apparently did not feel the necessity to hide their identities. None of the observers of the mob’s actions in Panama City, Chipley, or Brewton, the three locations to which Neal was taken, reported that the members of the mob were wearing masks or made efforts to conceal their license plates. [ii]

Neal to burn at the stake

Claude Neal seized by mob

Blacks in Jackson County now became fearful for their own safety. The principal of the black high school wrote to the editor of the Jackson County Floridian while Neal was still in Brewton. He stated that the blacks of Jackson County wanted the guilty party caught and punished as much as whites did which was a reasonable assurance to issue. But in such circumstances, sycophants abound. The “Burley Jones” of Marianna emerged in the person of John Curry who wrote this letter to Jackson County’s Daily Times-Courier on October 22:

To the white citizens of Jackson County:

Just a few lines to let you all know that we good colored citizens of Jackson County don’t feel no sympathy towards the nigger that – the white lady and killed her. No! We haven’t felt he did right because he should stay in his place, and since he did such as he did, we are not feeling that we have a right to plead to you all for mercy. It makes us chagrined and feel that he has ruined the good colored people that try to behave themselves and work for an honest living. . . . But I am writing to let you know that we leave it to you all to do what you all see fit to do to him. But still asking you all not to be hard on your good servants that have been honest and faithful . . .  We good colored people want to thank you all for the favors and the chance that you will have given us to let us have schools for our children and teachers to teach them and jobs for us to work and to get bread for them that they can have a chance. Also we thank you all for making it easy.

Your faithful servant,

John Curry  [iii]              

How to Be an Uncle Tom

Curry’s response was not unique to Ocoee and Marianna. Some blacks in Rosewood were angry at Sylvester Carrier and the Masons for attracting white mobs to that town. Similar expressions were heard in Newberry in which instance some blacks blamed Boisey Long and his family for bringing down the wrath of the Dudleys and other whites. But one of the things that made the Neal lynching different from those previously mentioned was that the Claude Neal lynching was announced in advance nation-wide in the media, primarily as a result of the Associated Press being on hand locally to spread the news.  The announcement was made by a member of a so-called “Committee of Six,” who was representing the mob in Marianna.  The notice was given to newspapers and was broadcasted on the radio.  The lynch mob leaders told the white public that there would be a lynching party held between eight and nine that Friday night, some full twelve hours away. [iv]

Given the advanced announcement of the lynching, the Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching issued a strong appeal from Tallahassee to law enforcement officials to do all that was in their power to prevent the killing.  The United States Attorney General said he could not invoke federal kidnapping laws in order to rescue Neal because no ransom was involved.  Given the fact that Neal had been kidnapped from police custody and transported across the state line between Florida and Alabama, the federal government could have become involved by evoking the Lindberg Law. This law allowed federal intervention in kidnap cases in which victims of kidnapping are transported across state lines.  But Washington did nothing.  From New York, the NAACP sent a telegram to Governor David Sholtz urging him to take immediate steps to protect Neal, but J.P. Newell, the governor’s executive secretary, replied that the governor could not be reached.[v]

 

As the news spread, including by word-of-mouth, an enormous, unruly crowd, containing hundreds of outraged whites, began to assemble at the Cannady farm.  Jackson County moonshine fueled passions. What started out as solemn expressions of sympathy for the family degenerated into a blood-lust circus. A member of the Florida state legislature told the crowd in a humorous vein that no one would be disappointed if the crowd maintained decorum.[vi]  Telegrams poured in to the governor asking him to send in the National Guard, but Governor Sholtz refused.  By the announced hour of the lynching, the crowd had grown to at least four thousand people. More poured into Marianna, some coming from several states away.  By the announced time of the lynching, the nation was following events through the Associated Press, as newspapers across the country picked up the story.

Claude Neal seized by mob

Neal to burn at the stake

Concerned about the unruliness of the huge crowd, the mob leaders postponed the lynching, hoping the crowd would dwindle.  When it didn’t, the mob leaders carried Neal to the Chipola River and killed him.  One eyewitness gave this account of Neal’s last hours: “After taking the nigger to the woods . . . they cut off his penis. He was made to eat it. Then they cut off his testicles and made him eat them and say he liked it.  . . .  Then they sliced his sides and stomach with knives and every now and then somebody would cut off a finger or two.  Red hot irons were used on the nigger to burn him from top to bottom.” [vii]   “From time to time during the torture a rope would be tied around Neal’s neck and he was pulled up over a limb and held there until he almost choked to death when he would be let down and the torture began all over again.” [viii]

Claude Neal in death

Then Neal’s body was placed on the front bumper of one of the cars and driven to the Cannady farm, carried as hunters transport a dead deer or swamp pig. The corpse was dropped a few yards from the Cannady home at which time it was attacked by women and children. Some of the children reportedly plunged sharpened sticks and knives into Neal’s dead flesh. The bereaved family had been promised that once Neal was delivered up to them, the women would have first crack at him followed by the men of the family. But the killing by the Committee of Six had thwarted the family’s need for revenge.  Standing on his front porch, the girl’s father, a weeping old man, complained that the mob had “done me wrong” since he had been promised that he would have the first shot at Neal.[ix]

The Cannady family home

One newspaper reported that Neal was hung from a tree on the Jackson County Courthouse lawn after he had been slashed and shot into mincemeat. Some of the many photos of his disfigured body were printed in newspapers around the country while visitors to the scene purchased postcards, for fifty cents apiece, showing the body swinging from a tree in front of the courthouse. The corpse was mutilated. Toes and fingers were reportedly displayed as souvenirs. 

Thousands of whites, including members of the KKK flooded into Marianna causing a riot when Neil’s body was not hung for public viewing.

After the local sheriff cut down the body the next day, a mob of two thousand people, including many non-locals, demanded it be re-hung.  In retaliation for the sheriff’s refusal, the mob attacked the courthouse and went on a rampage through Marianna.[x] The body was not re-hung but was placed on the steps of the jail where hundreds of people could pass by and see it.[xi]

Jackson County Courthouse

Finally, the governor sent in the National Guard to restore order. In terms of pure viciousness, the Claude Neal lynching may have reached a new low for Florida lynchers, a feat not easily accomplished.  The incident caused an outpouring of national rage and became the centerpiece in the NAACP’s efforts to pass anti-lynching laws. Those efforts failed, even in the face of the sensational Neal lynching.

 

Allie Neal, daughter of Claude Neal 

Neal Family reunion

Although lynching was already in decline when the Neal lynching took place, there was a precipitous decline in it throughout the South after this killing.  Ordinarily a lynching such as this would not have attracted much attention.  Neal was but one of more than three thousand blacks known to have been lynched in America up to that time. But the preliminaries of the Neal lynching had taken on a circus-like atmosphere, including a public celebration that lasted for several hours prior to the event itself.  The sheer audacity of it outraged the country but not necessarily the South.  The public outside the South could not fathom how such a thing could have happened with the police being aware of it beforehand.  

Apparently, the public outside the South did not understand the public inside the South where a sexual assault upon a white woman by a black man was seen as the one unpardonable sin. The perpetrator of such an act deserved his ignoble end, and the white men who dispatched him to hell were considered community heroes.

Ten more recorded lynchings in Florida took place after the Neal incident. But the post-Neal lynchings would be different. Following the Neal lynching, there were fewer public lynchings in the South that drew hundreds of people. Lynchings by private parties became more common. W. Fitzhugh Brundage, an expert on Southern history, noted the trend in Georgia and Virginia but the same applied to lynchings in Florida. “Rather than public events in which large numbers participated in a communal performance, lynchings by private mobs can be understood as a form of private vengeance. . . . Private mobs accounted for 30 percent of all lynchings in Georgia and 46 percent of all lynchings in Virginia.”[xii]

During the lynching era, whites would describe a lynching in terms of “a good lynching” or “a bad lynching.”  A good lynching was one in which the victim was quietly taken away by a relatively small number of individuals.  He was often given the opportunity to confess and then to pray, after which he was summarily and cleanly disposed of by hanging or some other method. In such a lynching there was no carnival atmosphere, no jeering crowds, no mutilation of the body, etc. However, the lynching of Claude Neal was not a “good lynching.”  It was a textbook example of a “bad lynching.” The national and international fallout from the Neal killing frightened lynchers into secrecy. Blacks continued to be lynched, although at a much lower rate.

No other public lynching took place in Florida after this much publicized and extremely brutal killing, except for the lynching of Reuben Stacey in Fort Lauderdale the next year. Some of Claude Neal’s descendants meet from time to time. Almost all of Neal’s relatives left Jackson County in fear for their lives. His wife remained and raised their one child alone. With the assistance of a nephew of Claude Neal, I was able to interview Neal’s daughter, Allie Neal, in 2011. She was well into her eighties but had a vivid recollection of the family situation in the years following the death of her father.

She had no recollection of her father as she was very young when he was killed. But she recalled her mother describing Neal as a handsome man who was popular with women.  Although she was too young to recall her father, she still carried the pain from the events of 1934. “I think about my daddy hanging in that tree at the courthouse even today. It affected me so much. I used to have to walk by that courthouse all the time and that’s what I would think about- my daddy hanging in that tree” [xiii]

It was almost common knowledge in Marianna’s black community that Neal and Lola Cannady were in a romantic relationship. Even some whites were aware of it. Janis Owens, a writer from Jackson County, is an expert on the history of the county. She told me that when her mother, who lived in Jackson County all of her life, was about to die, she told Janis, “You know that boy was going with that white girl.”  Owens said she asked her mother how she knew this. She said her mother responded, “Everybody knew it.”[xiv]  But a local white historian, Dale Cox, is also an expert on Jackson County, and he dismisses the rumor, although he has heard it. “There were rumors of a relationship, of course, but there were also rumors that she was having a fling with the sheriff of the county, with a judge, or others.” [xv]

There were no such doubts among the Neal family or among many other blacks. Orlando Williams is Claude Neal’s nephew. He is in his late 60s and lives in Virginia.  His mother, Ruby Lee Neal, was Claude Neal’s sister.  She was in her thirties when the lynching took place.  According to Williams, the whole family knew that Claude Neal and Lola Cannady were going together. It had been going on for years, “Just hanky-panky stuff.” Williams said his grandmother, Aggie Robinson Harden, a matriarch in the rural community, told him about the affair between Neal and the white girl, as did his aunt Hattie Bronson.  Aggie Robinson told Williams that Neal and Lola “fell in love.”[xvi] 

Members of the Cannady family have denied the rumors about a relationship between Lola and Neal. They told Ben Montgomery, an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, that there was no truth to this rumor. But according to a Texas newspaper, Claude Neal and Lola Cannady had a sexual relationship that extended back several years.  The newspaper described Lola as a young white woman who defied tradition and kept company with Neal and who had, on the insistence of her mother, told Neal she was through with him.” 

Neal’s descendants are seeking reparations from the State of Florida based upon the fact that, even with prior warning of at least twelve hours before the lynching, the State failed to act to protect Claude Neal’s life. They have every right to seek reparations. If the State of Florida wished to be fair to Claude Neal’s family, the State would assume responsibility for its failures in the incident. The State should apologize to the family and pay an appropriate sum to his aging daughter and possibly other descendants. 

There is a seduction here that must be resisted. Some people, even today, could rely upon the circumstantial evidence against Neal and judge him guilty. But in terms of the obligation of the State to protect him, it is irrelevant whether Neal was guilty of killing the Cannady girl or not; he was entitled to a fair trial.  Certainly, this begs the question as to whether Neal could have received a fair trial anywhere in Florida.  But he did not get a trial, a fair one or not, and given the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, Claude Neal died an innocent man. 

The Neal relatives are even more entitled to reparations from the State than were the black descendants of Rosewood. In the Neal case, the State knew in advance and failed to act to protect a citizen. is misleading. The active lynching parties who pursued Neal to Pensacola and Alabama were much larger, as was the mob who broke him from jail. The group included WWI veterans and American Legionnaires. Several members had ties to local neo-Confederate groups. Surnames that were historically connected to the Committee of Six included the Green, Owens, Ducker, Hill, Griffin and Hall family, the latter thought to be the ring-leaders. A Hall acted as “judge” in the proceedings, and other Hall family members were active in the pursuit and murder of Claude Neal.  

Charles W. Cox was the head of the Klan in Jackson County in October of 1934. Strongly suggestive The Committee of Six was the title the core group of lynchers named themselves, though the title of Ku Klux Klan involvement in Claude Neal’s lynching, is the fact that after murdering Neal, the Committee of Six took the body to Cox to approve. He apparently issued his approval after which the corpse was driven to the Cannady farm and deposited there to be mutilated by the mob and Cannady family members. A long-time history teacher at Marianna High School had one of Claude Neal’s fingers. A member of the local Padgett family also had one.[xvii]

Historian Dale Cox, expert on Neal lynching

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