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Revisiting Claude Neal Lynching Brings Opportunity For Racial Healing In Jackson County

Claude Neal Lynching Tree in front of Jackson County Courthouse
Valerie Crowder
The live oak tree along the Madison Street entrance to the Jackson County Courthouse remains standing 86 years after one of the nation's most egregious spectacle lynchings happened there. County commissioners have ignored citizens' calls for a memorial or historic marker at the site.

The Courthouse Lynching Tree

Listen to part 1.

With their sprawling, moss-covered branches, the live oak trees surrounding the Jackson County Courthouse give downtown Marianna a feeling of Southern charm.

But an ugly past hides behind the picturesque scenery.

Less than a century ago, an African-American man’s naked, mutilated body was displayed on one of those oak trees. His name was Claude Neal. At 23, he was a son, a brother, a husband and a father until a white mob kidnapped, tortured and killed him in mid-October 1934.

“I’m almost at a loss for words when I’m trying to describe what that tree means to me,” said Walter Caldwell Jr., 21, who grew up in Marianna. “I just don’t want to think that people could go that far or that people could be that evil, but that tree definitely reminds me every day of that.”

Neal was a victim of one of the nation’s most horrific public spectacle lynchings. His death is taught in many university and college classrooms, but there’s no historic marker acknowledging the tragedy in the county where it happened. County commissioners have even refused to give Neal’s family permission to place a memorial next to the tree.

Caldwell is among more than 7,500 people who signed an online petition calling for the tree’s removal and the installation of a monument acknowledging the county's nine lynching victims. Most of the petition's comments were from county residents.

One self-identified Marianna native wrote: "To know so many gruesome stories that happened in my small town is traumatizing. I don’t think that tree should still be standing. I still get heartbroken and offended every time I ride past this tree."

Street Philosophy Institute (SPI), a research organization that aims to boost civic engagement in rural communities, started the petition. Local resident Darien Pollock, a Ph.D candidate in philosophy at Harvard University, founded the startup two years ago.

Pollock says the organization started a petition after he heard from local residents who were upset that the tree remained there without any acknowledgement of its history.

“The George Floyd moment filtered into small rural communities in the rural South which created a consciousness about the local tragedies that we have in our own communities.”

After George Floyd was killed, citizens in small and large cities across the U.S organized protests and marches. There was even a demonstration in rural Marianna. That didn’t happen almost 10 years ago when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford, Florida, Pollock said. “That shows you the kind of change that’s happening in our public.”

And Pollock says today’s young people are primarily driving this change. “The youth has requested for it [the tree] to come down,” Pollock said. “They need to know that they have democratic rights and that their voices are heard, especially at a time when they are interested in being engaged.”

At a county commission meeting in June, SPI submitted a proposal to remove the tree and install a historic marker on the courthouse lawn. Pollock says the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama has agreed to pay for the lynching memorial. The proposal also recommended hiring an African-American farmer to plant a new tree at the site.

Listen to part 2.

About a dozen citizens called into the meeting to express support for at least some of SPI's suggestions. Still, after nearly an hour-long presentation and public comment period, commissioners refused to bring it to a vote or even table the issue.

“What is that other than a very practical dismissing?” Pollock said. “But luckily we have the youth - white and black - who are not standing for that.”

County Commissioner Chairman Clint Pate spoke about the board’s inaction on the proposal at an August board meeting. “Just because a group wants to do something does not mean that the board has to address it,” he said. “It takes a motion and a second to have a vote, and there was no vote. So, the tree, right now, unless the board changes, is standing and living.”

Pate also clarified why they wouldn't vote on requests for a historic marker. He mentioned a local policy that prevents the installation of any new monuments on the county courthouse lawn. "We made that because of some issues that could arise on where things are being put or wanted to be put."

Commissioners adopted the measure last year - one year after a different group of county residents sought to erect a lynching memorial near the tree.

Though many community members have expressed support for the tree's removal, some of Neal's family members want it to remain.

Claude Neal's nephew Orlando Williams, 73, is one of them. And he says he's not alone.

“This was the last place that he was on this earth, his last place on earth,” Williams repeated. “That’s what we want to remember it as. This was the last place that he was on this earth.”

The Jackson County NAACP is supporting Williams' request to preserve the tree and erect a memorial. “I know there was a group that wanted the tree removed,” said Linda Franklin, chapter president. “The family feels that once the tree’s removed it’s going to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and that’s not what they’re wanting.”

But Darien Pollock disagrees. He says not all of Neal's relatives want the same thing. At least one person who signed the petition for the tree's removal identified Neal as her great uncle. Pollock says he knows several relatives of Neal who live in Marianna and support the tree's removal. “We have that on our side. We have morality on our side. We have testimony on our side.”

With no clear path forward, the debate over the tree is at a standstill. Pollock says that could change after November's elections. Two county commissioners are facing challengers.

"That's what it's going to take us voting those people out," Pollock said.

A Community Tragedy

Historian James McGovern interviewed many Jackson County residents familiar with the details of Neal’s lynching death. McGovern’s findings are compiled in a book called “Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal.”

The lynching was publicized in neighboring counties and roughly 2,000 visitors gathered in downtown Marianna on the day Neal's body was displayed in front of the courthouse, McGovern writes. Some people traveled from Alabama and Georgia to participate in the spectacle.

"Early that morning whites moved about in the business district and then headed in the direction of the courthouse square. Those who were there before 6:30 a-m got a chance to view Neal’s skinned and mutilated body."

“Once the corpse was removed, disappointed late-comers were willing to pay fifty cents a photograph. These photographs were hawked in a crowd which was still enraged over having been left out of the spectacle when so much had been promised to them; some took solace when persons in the crowd exhibited fingers and toes from Neal’s body. To own them, confirmed genuine status.”

McGovern writes white spectators later began rioting and attacking African-American residents in nearby shops and businesses. Nearly 200 people were assaulted. Many ran into the woods to avoid the mob. The chaos ended the next day after national guard troops had restored order.

“The tree on which Neal’s body had been displayed was the only memento of the event. Sheriff Chambliss refused that day to allow himself to be photographed and was gruff with newspaper correspondents: ‘This whole thing has had too much notoriety already. The best thing to do is to drop the whole matter and forget it.’

In some ways, that attitude persists today. Local elected officials have never erected a monument, marker or plaque in Neal's memory. They've never issued a proclamation acknowledging his horrific death. The history of local lynchings isn't taught in the county's schools. And many residents have long been afraid to speak out.

“For Black people, in our public, in our own community, it’s always been talked about. But we can’t talk about it in the broader public because of the intimidation factor,” said 27-year-old Darien Pollock, who's lived in Jackson County almost his entire life. “Back when it first happened, it was actually white KKK-type people coming to your door. Some Black people had to hide in caves because it was so bad."

Pollock says today speaking out might hurt a person's chances of getting and keeping a job. "That kind of stuff matters in small towns a lot more because you don't have a lot of federal oversight in places like Jackson County."

A Family Seeking Justice

The names of the six men who kidnapped Claude Neal from a jail in Pensacola and drove him back to the Jackson County woods, where they tortured him for hours, have never been publicly released. In 2013, the FBI stopped investigating Neal's death and recommended that the U.S. Department of Justice close the case.

Neal's nephew Orlando Williams has been seeking justice for the family for more than three decades. He's worked with investigators, historians and journalists to try to find out who killed his uncle. And he's written letters to lawmakers and attorneys, seeking help with securing reparations for the family.

“All my family had to change their name [from Neal] to Smith,” Williams told county commissioners at a meeting in August. “Some had to move to Caryville, Chipley and other parts of the state to avoid being killed by the mob.”

Williams asked county commissioners how they planned to acknowledge his uncle's horrific death. They offered no suggestions.

Williams says he wants the state of Florida to formally apologize for Claude Neal’s lynching and compensate surviving descendants for the pain and suffering they’ve endured. It could look like the 1994 Claim Bill for the survivors of the Rosewood massacre. Still, he says, finding someone to represent the family has been difficult.

“They tell me to don’t give up on my fight, but they won’t steer me to a lawyer who would be willing to go the full yard.”

At the time, Florida House Bill 591 was considered one of the most controversial bills to pass in the state legislature. Lawmakers ultimately agreed to give each survivor $150,000 and set up a scholarship fund.

He says something similar could help the younger generations of the Neal family. He says some of them continue to struggle in Jackson County.

“They don’t have good jobs,” Williams said. “They just walk around like zombies in that town.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote to Jackson County Commissioner Jim Peacock. It was Jackson County Commissioner Clint Pate who addressed SPI's petition to remove the tree and Claude Neal's family's requests to erect a memorial at the site. A previous version of this story also misspelled Darien Pollock's first name.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.