Claude Neal couldn't read or write. He was short and scrawny, and scraped by, picking peas and cotton, mending fences and tending hogs, trying to provide for a wife and 3-year-old daughter against the tides of the Great Depression.
He died on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, killed by six white men who felt the need to send a message. They lashed him to a tree with tractor chains, cut him with knives, burned his flesh, and when he was dead, they turned him over to a mob of thousands, who poked him with sharpened sticks and drove their cars over his corpse before hanging him from an oak tree that still stands in front of the courthouse here, 80 years later.
The perpetual insult for the man's family is that the world kept turning and nobody was ever brought to justice. No killer was ever even named.
In 2011, after 77 years of ignoring one of America's most violent and well-attended lynchings, the Justice Department said it was taking a fresh look at the case. But not even the FBI could cut through the small-town secrecy.
"Please accept our sincere condolences on the loss of your uncle," wrote Paige M. Fitzgerald, deputy chief in charge of the Justice Department's Cold Case Initiative, late last year. "We regret that we cannot be of further assistance to you."
"I was shocked," said Orlando Williams, 67, Neal's nephew. "The FBI didn't do their job."
For three decades, Williams has tried to make good on a promise to his cousin, Allie Mae Neal, 83, who was 3 when her father was killed. He spends his evenings hunched over a computer, writing letters bound for Washington, D.C., letters that, he knows by now, hardly draw a response. He wants somebody with authority to hear how his family was run off from Jackson County, the kids hiding in the back of a wagon, and had to settle, bloodlines broken, far from home.
"The federal government failed to protect my uncle," he said. "This was murder. They knew about it and didn't do anything."
• • •
Claude Neal, 23, was arrested in late October 1934, accused of killing a 20-year-old white woman named Lola Cannady, with whom he had grown up. She had been engaged to a white man who lived nearby. Her body was found near a hog pen, covered with pine boughs.
"Ku Klux Klan May Ride Again," read the headline in the local newspaper. "Jackson County Citizens May Rally to Fiery Cross to Protect Womanhood."
The local sheriff tried to protect the young farmhand, who allegedly signed a confession with an X, by moving him out of a county where six blacks had been lynched since 1900. Gun-hung whites split up to search as Neal was secreted to Chipley, then Panama City, then Camp Walton. They swarmed jails, unmasked and drinking, threatening jailers to turn over the accused. The secretary of the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People begged Florida's governor to intervene.
The search party, who called themselves the "Committee of Six," captured Neal at a jail in Brewton, Ala., more than 150 miles from his home. The men tied Neal's hands with a plow rope, stuffed him in the back seat and headed for Jackson County.
Newspapers across the country followed the story.
"Mob Holds Negro: Invitations Issued for Lynch Party," one headline read.
" 'All White Folks' Invited To Party," another read.
At the Cannady house, a reporter from the Dothan Eagle estimated that 2,000 people from 11 states were drinking moonshine and waiting around bonfires as Neal was tortured a few miles away. When the kidnappers finally arrived with Neal's body, the dead girl's father was outraged. He wanted to do the killing himself.
Riots followed. Two hundred men tried to storm the jail to get a man accused of throwing a bottle at a white man. Blacks were chased into hiding, some out of town. Those cursed with the last name of Neal fled Jackson County.
A "day of terror and madness," one local called it.
Hiding among the thickets was Claude Neal's 3-year-old daughter and his pregnant wife, who would soon miscarry.
When the dust settled, a grand jury met and concluded that Claude Neal had indeed raped and killed Lola Cannady, and that he had met his own death "at the hands of a small group of persons unknown to us."
• • •
Orlando Williams told his family about the latest setback at a reunion here on July 26, inside the Jackson County Ag Center on Highway 90. He had hoped the FBI, whose investigation was part of a comprehensive effort to close unsolved racially motivated murders from the civil rights era, would bring some closure.
The FBI had promised as much in 2011, when agents sat down at the Williams kitchen table to begin an investigation. Names would be named, if possible, they told him, according to Williams. But it's unclear from the letter how hard they searched for answers.
A local historian named Dale Cox had interviewed two of the six men present at the killing. He gave the Tampa Bay Times a portion of one of the interview transcripts and said he knew all six names, but would only divulge them to the FBI. He wanted someone else to vet the information so that the reputations of innocent relatives wouldn't be unfairly tarnished.
On Thursday, Cox, who has written a book on the lynching, said he talked to the FBI through an intermediary a few years ago and offered the agency access to his research and the names.
"It was just as the agent handling it was winding down for retirement and we passed messages back and forth but never actually met," Cox said in an email. "He said that the interim findings were that all involved were deceased, which is true, but I never saw the final report if he ever put one together."
The Justice Department, in its letter, said given "the dearth of investigative and court records, the lack of credible and reliable evidence identifying the men in the smaller lynching party who killed Claude Neal, and the slim chance of any of these men being alive, this matter is not prosecutable and should be closed."
Williams told his family he was still trying to get somebody to listen, that he wasn't giving up.
"Hell no," he said. "I've been doing it too long."
He blames the lynching for his own mother's death. She was there, and she never shook the trauma. She'd start talking about it, hoping moonshine would take the pain away. She'd make her kids read the 23rd Psalm while she cried.
She was found dead in her bed when Williams was 14. He still remembers the depression on the mattress.
Williams has enlisted the help of a paralegal named Pelvo White Jr., who has drafted a claims bill to submit to the Florida Legislature and the U.S. Congress. It cites the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the 1921 Tulsa race riots, the massacre at Rosewood.
They're still trying.
"There are going to be times when people say, 'Let this go,' " White told the 50 or so family members gathered. "But if you stick with it and see it through, it will work out. Have the courage to see it through."
They feel they're owed for 80 years of hardship, for being chased from their homes, for inheriting the trauma of a barbaric act.
"These people got away with it," White said. "So now we're asking the federal government to make this right for one family. They lost everything. They changed their names. They lost their connections. They lost their land. Some of them lost their minds. They lost their loved one."
The effort, they know, is a long shot. But what's new?
"We want them to know that this can be negotiated," White said, "but it's not going away."
As the sun went down, a young woman wheeled Allie Mae Neal into the reunion. She has been fighting pneumonia all year and had to move into a nursing home. She can't remember her father, only the stories her mother told. How, after a bath, he'd dress her up and tie bows in her hair with the same fingers the mob would eventually sever and keep for souvenirs.
Williams looked at her across the room.
"Claude Neal's daughter," he said into the microphone. "Allie Mae."
A pack of children, the next generation, migrated to her table and began tying colorful balloons to her wheelchair and, just for a moment, she smiled.
Contact Ben Montgomery at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650. Follow @gangrey.