Cool story alert: Aftermath of Claude Neal lynching shows legacy of past racism remains in Florida
Neal, a black man who worked as a farmhand in Greenwood, Fla. (Jackson County) was beaten, mutilated and shot 77 years ago, after authorities said he admitted to helping rape and murder a white woman. The resultant lynching, which was publicized like a carnival debut and drew thousands of spectators, eventually became the shame of the state, inspiring nationwide coverage.
The topic really hit home for me, because I spent much of Saturday talking about lynching, segregation, racism and American society at the Times Festival of Reading. I introduced my friend and neighbor Julie Armstrong, who wrote an amazing new book about the legacy of such acts: Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching. And I also had the privilege of hosting an appearance by Ray Arsenault, producer Laurens Grant, and freedom riders David and Winonah Myers, who talked about Ray's book Freedom Riders and the PBS film which it inspired.
What's obvious, is that much remains unknown and unspoken about the worst depths of America's problems with racism and segregation. Lynching, in particular, was seen as a way to keep black people afraid and powerless even after slavery was abolished, ensuring they would remain a low-wage labor force for farming and other businesses.
On the Claude Neal story, Ben and photojournalist Edmund Fountain spent two years trying to excavate the story of Neal's death, which ended with the man strung up in front of the county courthouse in Marianna, fingers and strips of flesh torn from his body as souvenirs. The event forced some members of Neal's family to flee the area, sometimes changing their last name to avoid any association with their murdered relative.
Particularly for those on the wrong side of history, there's a feeling that such stories should remain unexplored. But the survivors of the victims remain traumatized by the history, unable to fully know why their family has been so fractured and dispersed -- cut off from their history in another cruel legacy of racism and segregation.
In the end, there's a maddening lack of resolution; how can you even know if Neal was guilty in an environment where the merest suspicion of guilt could bring a white mob down on a black person's head?
But this story -- and our discussions on Saturday -- show how important it is for historians and citizens to lay all these cards on the table, finally delivering justice to victims of America's tortured history of racism and oppression.