Having spent the better part of my adult life calling for monuments to Confederate leaders to be removed from courthouse squares to museums due to knowing that most of these marble men were erected during the Jim Crow era to terrorize Blacks, I must admit that today’s headline from the Tallahassee Democrat, one that chronicles an activist’s efforts to remove the hanging tree that infamously held the grotesque remains of Claude Neal in 1934, threw me for a loop.
I have been writing about Neal’s lynching ever since I first learned about it during my student days at the University of Florida College of Law in the late 90’s. Essentially, on October 19, 1934, Neal, a 23-year old Black man, was arrested following the death of a young white woman named Lola Cannidy. Neal, a field hand on a farm owned by Cannidy’s father near Marianna, Florida, grew up playing with Cannidy, and they were rumored to have been romantically involved. When Cannidy’s body was found, suspicion immediately turned to her friend (or lover) Claude Neal.
Neal’s arrest began an odyssey that would find him first placed in custody in nearby Chipley, Florida, then driven across the state line to Brewton, Alabama. The need for the trek was obvious; local white citizens, had already indicated that they would kill Neal without a trial.
The Florida NAACP petitioned then-Gov. David Sholtz to send National Guard troops to protect Neal’s rights. Sholtz, more concerned about being re-elected that November, hedged and ultimately did nothing.
A week after his arrest, on October 26th, Neal was abducted from the Brewton Jail and subsequently beaten and tortured by a self-proclaimed “Committee of Six,” a motley crew of cowards who took turns torturing him and by some later accounts, forcing Neal to eat his own penis and scrotum. The “Committee” then shot Neal more than 50 times before returning his lifeless corpse to the Cannidy farm, where an estimated 3,000 white men, women and children watched as the more deranged spectators took pictures with the body or cut portions of his remaining extremities for souvenirs.
In a final act of barbarity, Neal’s corpse was doused with gasoline, torched, and his charred remains were hanged in the town square–right outside of Sheriff Chambliss’ office–as depicted below.
Today, a group called the “Street Philosophy Institute” (SPI) has obtained 7,000 signatures on a petition that provides: “We…demand that this ugly reminder of the vicious legacy of white supremacy and anti-Blackness be removed from the Jackson County Courthouse.”
The SPI, founded by Marianna native and Harvard doctoral student Darien Pollock, hopes to have the hanging tree permanently removed. But Orlando Williams, Neal’s 76-year old nephew, disagrees with the petition and argues that the tree should remain–but that a memorial should be added that reminds the world of his uncle’s fate. Williams recounts that the trauma was so great that the Neal family fled from their 40 acre homestead to Gulf County, Florida and changed their names from Neal to Smith to avoid being killed. Williams stated that his mother would spend most of her life staring out the window and encouraging her children to read the 23rd Psalms over and over again, a trauma underscored by the fact that they never regained the rights to their property.
Current Jackson County NAACP President Linda Franklin says that the organization is “standing with the family” and hopes to preserve the tree and have a memorial erected.
I must admit that over the past two decades, each time that I have been to the Marianna Courthouse, I have found myself staring at that hanging tree and imagining the sheer terror that local Blacks must have felt in the aftermath. Mind you, I would have no problem with the tree being removed and replaced by a monument, but I am very deferential to the wishes of the Neal family and their desires to both preserve the tree and provide a marker. I find it telling that the very same courthouse that has markers that extol the virtues of locals killed in combat, including the Civil War, that there is no monument telling the story of a local whose brutal murder made Jackson County infamous in 1934.