Editor's note: This story was first published Oct. 23, 2011.
Allie Mae Neal pushed through the screen door and found a shady spot on her porch where the summer sun didn't bite. Kittens purred at her feet and wasps flitted in and out of holes in the roof. The few neighbors who passed by saw an old woman in a wheelchair, blue eyes lazy and unfocused behind thick glasses. She'd wave and they'd wave back. Black or white. She has never held a grudge.
"I never blamed nobody," she said. "I never knew who to blame."
She never knew because nobody was ever charged with a crime, and because no man spent a single second in a cell for the things they did to her father, with knives and rope and hate.
Seventy-seven years have passed. She can't remember his face. If she ever wanted to look, she could study the single photograph of him that exists. But in it, he is hanging from a tree.
The story of her father's death ran in newspapers from New York to Los Angeles, detailing how a small band of men killed him, and how a mob mutilated his corpse. They called it a spectacle lynching, and historians say it was perhaps the worst act of torture and execution in 20th century America. The killing became Florida's shame. President Franklin D. Roosevelt knew her father's name.
But America moved on, all except for Allie Mae, who is still jolted awake by nightmares, and the other descendants of Claude Neal, who are still scattered and broken, and a few historians, who have never told the story whole. In the Panhandle town of Greenwood, the lynching of Claude Neal remains in some families a dark legend. Those who could remember it outright are mostly dead. The ones who inherited the stories have kept them secret, safe.
A car pulled up outside Allie Mae's little house. Out stepped her cousin, Orlando Williams. He is 64, too young to remember his uncle. But he has seen the way the violence ripped through generations of his family.
He's young enough to keep hoping, if not for justice, then at least for answers.
He climbed the steps and kissed Allie Mae on the cheek.
"I promise," he whispered.
"I know," she said.
For 25 years he has vowed to bring amends. He has fired off letters to lawyers, congressmen, governors, presidents. After decades of rejection, there came, this summer, a knock at his door. The Justice Department had opened an investigation into the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal.
Whether because of Williams' efforts, or simply because the world has kept turning, one of the most atrocious chapters of Florida history is getting another look. The six men who tortured Claude Neal in the woods have never been publicly named. Those who kept his severed fingers in jars as souvenirs have not had to explain. Greenwood, a place where the names on the church rolls haven't changed, has not had to face its history. Its people - the shrinking number who know - are still protecting the reputations of killers.
• • •
JACKSON COUNTY, FLORIDA, 1934: Drip coffee, Purity Ice Cream, turnips, chuck roast, mustard for 15 cents a quart, 26 cents for a dozen eggs. Sun-bleached overalls, Baptists, Methodists, kerosene lamps, screen doors, mosquitoes, pine trees, knee stains, brick chimneys, K & K Grocery, and cotton, 12 cents a pound. Cotton on the roadside and cotton in the ditch and cotton in forever rows stretched across fields flat as tabletops.
Greenwood, 9 miles north of the county seat, was a one-telephone town of 1,300 farmers and sharecroppers staked to the Florida dirt against the tide of the Great Depression.
On the afternoon of Oct. 18, 1934, a white girl went out to water the hogs and did not come home.
Lola Cannady was 20 years old, 5 feet tall and 90 pounds. She had brown hair and thin lips, and she was pretty for a farm girl raised in a clapboard shack. She was engaged to a boy who lived not far away. Their wedding was close.
She was last seen heading to a pen across the dirt road from the only house she had ever known. When she didn't return, her family began to search. Neighbors joined, and the hunt stretched through the night, with guns and dogs and lanterns. They scoured the woods and set bonfires in the fields. The next morning, the sun rose on a commotion.
At 6:45 a.m., Sheriff Flake Chambliss, a big and burly man who was well-regarded, inspected the scene. Lola's body had been covered by pine boughs and logs. When he pulled away the brush he could see that Lola, fully dressed, had been beaten over the head. Chambliss found a piece of torn cloth nearby. He kept it as evidence.
He called upon two doctors to examine the body. Both agreed she had been murdered and that she'd had sexual intercourse. One called it rape.
Talk among the Cannady family and their neighbors turned to Claude Neal.
Neal, a 23-year-old farmhand, had grown up with Lola. He was short and scrawny. He couldn't read or write. He scraped by, picking peas and cotton, mending fences and tending to hogs. He had a wife and a young daughter named Allie Mae. He lived with his aunt, who had inherited 40 acres near the Cannady place.
A sheriff's deputy found him in the corn crib of an employer, where he had spent the night. The local newspaper reported that the sheriff found Neal's bloody clothes in his aunt's wash, and the swatch of cloth found in the woods was fitted to his shirt.
The sheriff hauled Neal to the jail in Marianna, the county seat, but he sensed something stirring. This was a place where church pews filled on Sundays, but Jackson County wasn't past dark days. It was still scarred by a bloody Civil War battle and a Reconstruction-era race war. Six blacks had been lynched here since 1900. The headline in the local paper after Lola Cannady's death read: Ku Klux Klan May Ride Again, Jackson County Citizens May Rally to Fiery Cross to Protect Womanhood.
Sheriff Chambliss had just two deputies, so his tactic was to hide Neal the best he could. The next 24 hours were a game of cat and mouse. Chambliss moved Neal to the jail in Chipley, then Panama City, then Camp Walton. The gun-hung whites of Jackson County split up to search a 75-mile radius. By 9:30 that night, 100 farmers, unmasked and drinking, swarmed the Bay County jail, moments too late. The next morning, 50 men surrounded the sheriff's house, demanding to know Neal's whereabouts. The sheriff wouldn't tell. The authorities smuggled Neal across the state line to Brewton, Ala., more than 150 miles from Greenwood. They booked him in as John Smith from Montgomery, charged with vagrancy, and placed him in the best-protected cell.
By then, another crowd had gathered at George Cannady's house. The old man talked to a reporter from the local newspaper. He said his daughter had been choked so hard her eyes were coming out of their sockets.
"Lord, but you can't know how it hurts," he said. "The bunch have promised me that they will give me the first chance at him when they bring him back and I'll be ready. We'll put those two logs on him and ease him off by degrees.
"When I get my hands on that nigger, there isn't any telling what I'll do."
• • •
INSIDE THE JAIL in Brewton, in the double-locked cell in the back, Claude Neal was alone. The sheriff from Escambia County had questioned him twice and produced a confession signed with an X.
It said Neal had gone into the field behind his mother's house with a relative, Herbert Smith, to catch a sow. He had noticed Lola Cannady cleaning out a hog trough. She asked for help and Neal washed out the trough and pumped it full of water. When Lola turned to go, Smith caught her arm. "How about me being with you?" he asked.
"You must be a fool," she said.
Smith grabbed her, dragged her to the edge of the woods and told Neal to hold her arms. He raped her, then said, "Come on, Claude, and get yours."
When they were finished, the confession said, Smith broke a small, dead oak tree and hit her on the head. They covered her with pine boughs, still alive.
The confession didn't jibe with the way Chambliss laid out the story in the local newspaper. And when Smith was brought to face Neal, police said, Neal recanted and said he had acted alone. The Escambia County sheriff, who took Neal's statement, told the press he had never wanted to kill a Negro so bad in his life.
Herbert Smith was never arrested. And even with a new confession, the case against Neal had holes.
Whether he was guilty would be lost to history, for he would never face trial. Men were already rushing toward the jail at Brewton. They arrived after midnight on Oct. 26 and held a shotgun on the jailer. They found Claude Neal, tied his hands with a plow rope, stuffed him in the backseat and slipped out of town into the darkness.
• • •
IN NEW YORK, WALTER WHITE was incredulous. The secretary of the fledgling National Association for the Advancement of Colored People watched from a distance. By his tally, Claude Neal was about to become the 5,068th person lynched in the United States since 1882, and the 45th since Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House. He was about to become the 16th lynching victim that year, and there was little White, or anybody, could do.
A story about Neal's abduction ran on the front page of the New York Times that Friday, Oct. 26, seven days after Lola's body was found, four days after the confession signed with an X was produced. Papers across the country focused the nation's attention on Greenwood.
Mob Holds Negro; Invitations Issued For Lynch Party
'All White Folks' Invited To Party
Thousands In Throng To See Florida Mob Murder Negro
White, 41, sent a telegram to Florida Gov. David Sholtz at 5:22 p.m.
EVERY DECENT PERSON NORTH AND SOUTH LOOKS TO YOU TO TAKE EVERY POSSIBLE STEP TO AVOID THIS DISGRACE UPON THE STATE OF FLORIDA (STOP) DOTHAN ALABAMA EAGLE ALSO ANNOUNCES THAT NEGRO IS BEING HELD BY MOB FOUR MILES FROM SCENE WHERE HE IS TO BE BURNED AT STAKE (STOP) WE URGE UPON YOU TO TAKE IMMEDIATE STEPS TO RESCUE NEGRO FROM MOB AND PLACE HIM IN SAFE CUSTODY
Gov. Sholtz said he couldn't send troops to Greenwood without a request from Sheriff Chambliss. Chambliss had not asked for help. He would say later that he couldn't even find the mob.
White didn't trust the local press, so he called upon a friend, a liberal Southern preacher named Howard "Buck" Kester, to investigate.
He wanted to know who was responsible for taking Neal, and he wanted them brought to justice. In a place so small, with so many watching the events unfold, maybe an enterprising white man could sort through the chaos and come up with some names.
• • •
CARS LINED the dirt road in front of the Cannady home for a mile in both directions, splitting cotton patches and hog pens and woods of black jacks, water oaks, dog fennels and persimmon bushes. By 7:30 p.m. more than 2,000 people from 11 states had gathered, according to a Dothan Eagle reporter there. They passed jugs of moonshine and stood around bonfires.
George Cannady, 70, paced his property, patting a revolver stuck in his belt. The Cannady clan stepped forward, 14 of them, some carrying knives.
"The womenfolk will do what they want to the nigger," one man said, according to the Eagle reporter. "Then the men will get him."
"Alright!" the crowd shouted. "We want the Negro!"
Neal was being held several miles away, in the woods, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. The six men who had abducted him - who referred to themselves as the Committee of Six - sent word that the mob should disperse. They feared someone would be injured if they introduced Neal into the drunken, chaotic crowd.
About 1 a.m., headlamps danced through the woods as a line of cars rolled into the yard. Behind one, a rope jerked as the car hit bumps. The body on the end of the rope was covered with dust and blood. A man standing on the back sliced the rope, and the body slid limp.
Lola Cannady's mother and sister were first to the corpse. They slashed it with their knives. Her brother cut off a finger. George Cannady, crying, pumped bullets into Neal's body. Men, women and children, some just toddlers, walked past the corpse and stabbed it with sticks. They kicked the dead man's body, spit on it and drove their cars over it.
When they had finished, the men threw the corpse onto the running board of a car and left for Marianna. At the courthouse square, they hung Claude Neal's body from a strong oak. A newspaper reporter counted 50 gunshot wounds. Souvenir seekers cut off his fingers and toes and skinned his body with knives.
At 6:32 that Saturday morning, Sheriff Chambliss cut down the work of the Jackson County mob.
• • •
THE GOVERNOR'S PHONE wouldn't stop ringing. One man in Marianna called it a "day of terror and madness." The messages piled up.
Mayor of Marianna called and advises that help is needed at once.
Doc Baltzell - Bad situation, worse than can be imagined - need 2 companies. Threatening to burn out all Negro quarters tonight.
Clake Hotel Calling. Fist fights going on spasmodically. Crowd peeved at Sheriff. Surely need help - running all negroes out of sight.
The whites had burned the homes belonging to Neal's kin. They chased blacks through the streets. Two hundred stormed the jail to get a man accused of throwing a bottle at a white man. They didn't relent until an officer produced a machine gun. Some white employers held the mob at bay with rifles, protecting their workers.
The black people hid. They hid under houses. They hid in their employers' closets. They fled in droves, some driving, some running.
Those cursed with the last name of Neal abandoned the lives they had known and ran. A Neal relative brought his wagon down from Donalsonville, Ga., and told the children to hide under corn and hay until they'd made it safely away.
In a thicket outside town, a pregnant woman laid low. She was scared and in pain. The baby inside her would not survive. It is impossible to know whether she knew this. What she did know, what she must have known, is that her life would never be the same. Hunkered beside her was her 3-year-old daughter, Allie Mae.
C'mon now, she whispered to the girl. Go with me.
• • •
ALLIE MAE NEAL is 80 now, and she has no memory of those thick woods save for the stories her mother told. She remembers that the doctors had to cut the fetus from her mother when she couldn't deliver.
She doesn't remember how it happened, but as they ran, Allie Mae was hurt.
"The doctors said they couldn't tell what was wrong," she recalled. "They said, 'When they was dragging you around, something must have happened to you.' " Still, if she tweaks her neck or back, she can't move for several days. She remembers missing school because of it. She remembers her mother having to cut clothes off her back.
Her childhood was filled with worry. She walked 3 miles to school, and each passing car was a threat, so she'd hide in the woods. Each white neighbor was a possible predator, so she rarely got close. She hardly left her mother's side.
"She was all I had," she said, "and I was all she had."
Her teachers favored her. They'd catch her quietly sobbing when the fathers would show up to escort her playmates home, and they'd give her Tim Tam cookies and sing to her, Sally Go Round the Moon. They never talked about it, but it seemed like they understood.
When she was older, she cleaned homes in Marianna. Some made the connection. They'd tell her it was a damn shame those men killed her daddy.
She can't remember her father at all. Her mother would tell stories about how, after baths, he'd dress her up and tie bows in her hair.
She sees him now in the empty spaces. He looks like her Uncle Grady, handsome and smiling. At night, she lies in bed, staring at the ceiling and thinking about him. She has lived 77 years with a tangible void. Nightmares still interrupt her sleep, but she keeps all the bad inside.
"I never have been full of hatred," she said. "Just every little thing that go on I'd say, I wish I had a daddy. If my daddy was living, so and so. If I had a daddy, I could go such and such a place. I kept that up all the time. My daddy wouldn't let this happen. My daddy wouldn't let that happen.
"I never had a father to take me to a school party or nothing. I never had the joy of a daddy. Never did."
• • •
SHE HAS NEVER SEEN the photograph. It steals your breath.
It was snapped before sunup, on Oct. 27, 1934. It shows a thin, short man hanging by his neck from an oak tree in front of the Jackson County courthouse. The man is naked and mutilated. Blood streaks his skin.
A rope is tied crudely around his neck. It is not a noose, not meant for killing, for he was dead when he arrived. This hanging was for display. His missing fingers and toes were community keepsakes. At the edge of the frame stands a white man wearing a jacket and hat and a blank stare.
The photograph sold for 50 cents on the street that day.
• • •
THAT PHOTOGRAPH STOKED public outrage the way that images of police dogs and fire hoses would 30 years later. The NAACP mailed the photograph and Buck Kester's investigative report to 15,000 politicians, editors, academics and preachers. Claude Neal's naked body appeared in newspapers across the country. Men and women put stamps on their anger.
"I realize that to you a nigger is probably less deserving of pity than a dog," a Michigan man wrote to the Florida governor, "but could any decent man stand by and see a dog mutilated, burned, shot, kicked and hanged without making any attempt to save its life?"
"Things like this make me almost ashamed of being white," wrote a woman from Massachusetts. "How long are these mobs of Southern white trash going to get away with their cowardly, inhuman persecution of colored people?"
Writers, teachers and clergymen prodded the government to investigate. Newspaper editorials urged the governor to arrest the lynchers, and when it was clear he wouldn't, they turned to the Department of Justice and the president. But they deferred to the people of Jackson County, saying no federal law had been broken. This stirred progressive politicians, and the next year was the closest Congress ever came to passing antilynching legislation.
The need soon faded. Lynchings, already on the decline nationwide, dropped from about 15 a year to fewer than five. There would never again be a lynching in America as large or grotesque.
As for the people of Jackson County? A grand jury met three times. It concluded that Claude Neal undoubtedly raped and killed Lola Cannady, and that he was killed "by persons unknown to us."
So civilization marched forward, but it left behind a secret. The killers remained nameless as their crime faded from collective memory.
"Most all of the old people who might remember are gone," said Lizzie Long, 81, who still lives in Greenwood and remembers seeing people running through the woods.
"I just can't go back that far," said Laura World, 96. "I remember enough to know we were all scared."
"All I know is the stories I've been told," said Doyle Green, 83. "I just know why they killed him was to send a message. If you cross the line, you're going to die. . . . And they ain't many people who wants to die."
A few people have tried to break the silence. But each backed off in fear for his safety.
When Buck Kester, the NAACP investigator, showed up at a church to meet a black minister, he found the house of God swarmed by white men with flashlights. Cover blown, he left town as quickly as he could, but not before getting a few names "rumored in Marianna to have had a good deal to do with the affair": Bowen Griffin, Bruce Carter and "Peg-leg" Brown.
In the late 1970s and early '80s, a professor tried again. He was threatened. Some talked on the condition of anonymity. His sources became "psychotically paranoid and frantic."
Later, a sheriff who wanted to take another look was warned: "You just leave that alone."
• • •
GEORGE W. CANNADY'S GRANDSON lives in an old mobile home less than half a mile from where his Aunt Lola was killed. The folks at the courthouse had suggested visitors approach with caution. The Cannadys are "peculiar," they said.
The property is littered with junk cars and rusty farm implements. A young woman came out of the house. "Y'all should just let sleeping dogs lie," she said. Then she disappeared inside.
A few minutes passed before a man emerged, shirt unbuttoned, Velcro shoes, and introduced himself as George Cannady. He stood in the dirt and swatted gnats. His family has its own version of events: The whole thing started over an unpaid debt and a family feud about a milk cow.
His grandfather went mad because he had wanted to kill Neal himself.
Cannady, 62, said he has always been interested in the lynching, and even did some of his own research in the state archives. He said he knew the Committee of Six, but he wouldn't identify them.
"I ain't going to go there," he said. "I even had conversations with some of 'em, years later. They was decent people. I think they felt so bad about her. It is a little 5-foot girl weighs 90 pounds being brutalated and raped by such a monster, you know?
"I think the people just said, 'Well, if we let this go on, then somebody else, it'll happen to them.' They just didn't want it to go on, you know?"
Cannady said the primary lynchers are all dead. He mentioned one of their names, and when pressed for more information, he retracted, said the man has descendants and he wouldn't want them angry.
"If I find out you put that name in that damn paper," he said, "I'm going to look for you, boy."
JOHN P. MCDANIEL is 70, retired now, a proud Democrat still living in Jackson County, where he served as sheriff for nearly three decades.
In the early 1980s he began quietly studying the Neal lynching. He had grown up hearing the rumors and always wondered. He asked the county historian for help.
The two returned to the crime scene. They found a pad of ash, all that remained of the Neal family home that was burned to the ground five decades before. They photographed the dilapidated Cannady house nearby. They scoured handwritten notes and evidence logs. Sheriff McDaniel, known to locals as Johnny Mac, talked to an old man who claimed to have been present when Neal was killed - not involved, but there. He named names. One of the names belonged to a man who was still alive.
The man was old, ill and senile.
And then, nothing. McDaniel dropped it.
"His memory had gone," McDaniel said. "It was just of no value to talk to him. He wasn't going to tell me nothing."
The sheriff felt conflicted.
"If I could have solved the case and brought the men to trial, I would have, but it would have taken a lot of evidence," he said, "and it just wasn't there."
Plenty of people claimed to know who was involved, but their stories fell apart under scrutiny. He talked to a woman who remembered seeing the silhouettes of chickens flying through the air as the Neal family's house burned. But when it came to what happened on the Chattahoochee, most of what he heard was hearsay.
"If you can't prove it, you just have speculation," he said. "And if you speculate, you might harm an innocent person."
Locals are still sensitive about the lynching. Jackson County has been painted as a racist backwater before, and McDaniel said it's not like that.
"I love this county very much. I gave this county 34 years of my life. I love every person in it, black, white, green," he said. "I'm not going to do anything that will hurt this county. It's been too good to me."
There is one other person he can think of who knows more than he does.
• • •
ON A BLISTERING AUGUST afternoon, Dale Cox bounced in his pickup down a dirt road, outside a fall-down hamlet called Two Egg, east of Greenwood. Tall pines rose on the roadsides. Cox grew up here. A reporter turned historian, he has spent much of his life digging into the past of Jackson County - Civil War battles, ghost towns, racial violence.
He has been collecting information about the Claude Neal lynching since he helped Sheriff McDaniel investigate in the early 1980s. He has unearthed new material, unseen photographs, evidence reports.
He finally arrived at a boat launch on an inlet near the Chattahoochee River, a stone's throw from the Georgia border. He parked and found a small opening to a thickly wooded area north of the launch.
"Through here," he said.
He walked a crooked path through the thick forest, glancing up occasionally at the canopy. He came upon an overgrown road that once led to a steamboat port called Peri Landing. Not far away, he spotted a tall post oak rising above the pines.
"This is it," he said, touching its bark. Only five or six people alive know where this tree is, he said.
"People who came out here after the fact told me that it looked like a deer had been slaughtered," he said. At the base of the tree, the vegetation is sparse. "The folklore is that nothing will grow where his blood was spilled."
While the crowd of thousands waited at the Cannady farm, the Committee of Six brought Neal here, Cox said. They bound him to this tree with trace chains and held him for eight hours. Cox thinks there should be a historical marker here, but he doesn't think the community is ready to open up about what happened, to be linked publicly and forever to such an act.
"In a way, 1934 was a long time ago," Cox said, taking a seat at the base of the tree. "In a way it isn't, because people still remember it. Locally, there's still a lot of sensitivity."
He has looked at enough evidence to draw some conclusions.
"The physical evidence tells me Neal likely committed murder." He pointed to Neal's confessions, the sheriff's report that says Neal's mother admitted washing his bloody clothes, the footprints at the crime scene leading to Neal's house, the piece of cloth that the sheriff said fit Neal's shirt.
It's easy to question the integrity of the investigation. But Neal's guilt or innocence isn't really the point. A group of men usurped the legal system and butchered him in a way that was unusually depraved, even for the time.
Cox interviewed two of the Committee of Six. They were his neighbors, men who knew his father and grandfather. He said he knows the names of the men responsible, and this has put him in an uncomfortable position. The last of the men died a few years ago, but their descendants are still around. If he makes their names public, he said, it could harm people connected by blood to a crime they had nothing to do with and may know nothing about. Not just the lynchers' children, but grandchildren, nephews, nieces.
"I'm conflicted about it, almost from an ethical standpoint," Cox said. "These guys never had their day in court, they're not around to defend themselves, and now, if we name them, their reputations - their families' reputations - are tarnished forever, nationwide."
He has also wrestled with the question of proof. He wasn't there.
"They were never indicted," he said, "and to my knowledge they were never named in any of the reports back then." The men named in Kester's report for the NAACP - Griffin, Carter and Brown - were not directly involved, he said.
Cox, 48, has spent much of his life trying to uncover truth, recording the past in all its nobility and wretchedness, so we can better understand who we are and who we aspire to be. It's ironic, he knows, that now he can't tell his hometown's biggest secret.
He has been diagnosed with ALS, a terminal illness known as Lou Gehrig's disease. His body is shutting down. Already, he grows dizzy and has to rest. He'll lose the ability to move his arms and legs, the ability to speak and, eventually, to breathe. He knows this, and it's why he has been working hard to finish a book he started long ago: The Claude Neal Lynching. He will tell everything he knows, except for the names of the men responsible.
He is willing to name names only if the FBI asks, so someone else can responsibly vet the information. But he has shared the transcript of one of his interviews. This is the first time it has been published.
• • •
HE WAS SCARED to begin with, telling us he didn't do it but that he would point out the man that did. Stuff like that. But then after he got relaxed he started to get mad and uppity. He said he had done it and if she weren't dead he would do it again. We was supposed to take him to old man Cannady's house and let him do the killing, but we heard from our man there that there was so many people that showing up with him would just get people hurt. So instead we took him down to Peri Landing and chained him to a tree on that little rise there where the road cuts down through the hill back from the river. Know where I mean?
Cox: Yes, sir.
Well, we kept asking him weren't he sorry for what he had done, but he kept saying no sir, he wasn't. We beat on him some, I reckon, and started cutting him and letting the blood run then burned the blood with a torch. We did a lot to him, I reckon.
Cox: Like what?
Well, I guess we was pretty liquored up and I ain't like that no more, but we cut off his balls and made him eat them and say they was good. Then we cut off his pecker and made him eat it and say it was good. Burned him up some. Whipped him some. I know everybody says we cut off his fingers and toes and all that but we didn't really do that. Other people did that later. After he was killed.
Cox: How was he killed?
Oh, well, we decided we couldn't risk carrying him alive up to Cannady's place, so somebody shot him.
Cox: Who did the shooting?
I don't rightly recollect for sure but I think it was (name withheld). He had his pistol with him and I recollect he or (name withheld) shot him in the head.
Cox: What happened then?
Well, we put him up on the back of the car and carried him in slow procession I guess you could say up to Parramore and then on up the Bascom road. We stopped there at your granddaddy's and showed him what we had done. You ever hear of that?
Cox: Yes, sir, my dad and uncles have talked about it.
From there we went on up the old road near abouts to Bascom then on over to the Cannady place. When we got there we kicked him off the bumper and drug him on up there. The old man and old woman came out and was pretty mad with us. He kept saying that we had promised him he could do it, but we hadn't promised nobody nothing. (Name withheld) came out and shot a round of bullets into him but he was already dead. (Name withheld) cut off the little finger on his left hand too. Everybody that wanted to took a look and some of the kids poked him with sticks or kicked at him. Somebody then said that if old Flake wanted him so bad, we should take him on up there and give him to him. So we took him up to the courthouse and hung him in a tree right outside Flake's office. That's pretty much what we did.
Cox: How do you feel about it now?
Well, I don't think much on it. It just seems like it were something that happened but it don't seem so real nowadays. I mean I don't feel bad about it because he raped and killed that girl. There weren't no doubt about that. He were a bad man. A bad man.
• • •
LATE SUMMER 2010, Jackson County. A light rain was falling. The sign outside the Greenwood Chapel A.M.E. Church said WELCOME SMITH AND NEAL FAMILY. Up the road, under low-hanging clouds, inside a little club called Paradise, a family gathered. It was a strange reunion. Most of them had never met. They came from places like Caryville and Madison and Donalsonville, towns that adopted them after their parents and grandparents were chased away.
Claude Neal's nephew Orlando Williams had brought them together. He hoped a reunion, with barbecue ribs and a chance to talk about the story they've whispered about for generations, might bring some kind of closure. The Electric Slide and family secrets.
Neal's niece, Ruth McNair, 80, rode the Greyhound up from Tampa, the first time she had been on a bus since the 1950s. She sat in the front seat because now she could.
"I'm just so happy I don't know what to do," she said. "Somehow God took care of us. Who would have thought I'd ever be able to meet my family?"
Seeing each other made them realize what had been lost. It didn't take long for them to understand they had all been changed by the crime that had driven them apart.
"It don't ever get erased," McNair said.
When Claude Neal's brother Joseph was on his deathbed in 2001, he had a talk with his son-in-law. It was a quiet moment, and the old man began to cry. Long ago, he said, some white men were harassing him. They thought he looked familiar. Thought he looked like a Neal.
He told them he wasn't. To save his own life, he denied his name.
"He had carried that with him," said Jerrund Sheffield of Caryville, "for a long time."
Orlando Williams stood behind the turntables, headphones over his ears. The family he had never known danced and hugged into the night.
He wants to shake skeletons from closets. He has dedicated an hour a day for 25 years to getting answers. Who killed his uncle? Why was nothing done to stop it?
He was encouraged when President George W. Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2007, which authorized up to $13.5 million a year to investigate old racially motivated killings. But prosecutions are difficult. Witnesses die and memories fade and many of those crimes, no matter how awful, are never solved.
Even if the Department of Justice can't prosecute, agents deliver a report of their findings to the victims' families in an attempt to bring closure.
Williams is obsessed with exposing the truth. There were dozens of victims of the Committee of Six. Their crime chased entire bloodlines from Jackson County, tormented his elders and robbed him of his childhood.
The lynching broke his own mother.
"She was traumatized when her brother was killed," he said. "She went through total hell, and she put us through total hell."
She would leave her five children with relatives and disappear for months, sometimes years. She'd return out of guilt and whisk them off to some tiny house to try to make a home. When she was sober, she was okay. But she always slipped back into dark places.
She'd start talking about what the men did to her brother. She'd smoke Camels and drink moonshine. She'd hit and kick her daughters. She'd make the kids read the 23rd Psalm out loud while she drank and cried. "She just couldn't take what happened," Williams said.
They found her dead, face down on her bed, on Valentine's Day 1961. She had suffocated.
Orlando Williams was 14. After they took her away, he stood in the room where she died. He saw a calendar on the wall above her bed and an indentation on the mattress, the empty place where his mother had been.
• • •
THE KNOCK sounded official.
One afternoon in early August, Orlando Williams' wife peeked through the window of their house in Virginia and saw a man in a suit and tie standing at their door. The man flashed a badge and introduced himself as an agent with the FBI. Williams thought he was in trouble.
What did I do? he asked.
The agent said he was there to talk about the murder of Claude Neal.
The two men sat at Williams' kitchen table. The agent said a case had been opened and that the Justice Department intended to learn all it could. The agent took notes as Williams told him about his mother and his grandmother, shreds of stories of how a family was torn apart, and how it had come back together in search of justice.
The agent said the results of the investigation would be sent to a cold-case prosecutor, and that if the evidence showed that there was a prosecutable violation of any federal statutes, appropriate action would be taken. Names would be named.
When the agent left, Williams called Allie Mae to share the news that someone had finally listened, and that the rest was only a matter of time.
Times researchers Natalie Watson and Shirl Kennedy, correspondent David Gardner and editor Kelley Benham contributed to this report.
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ABOUT THIS STORY: This story is based on dozens of interviews over two years with the relatives of Claude Neal, residents of Jackson County and several historians. The retelling of events in October 1934 relies on documents from the state archives in Florida and Alabama, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People files at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., newspaper articles, court transcripts, Jackson County property records, scholarly publications and the 1982 book Anatomy of a Lynching: The Killing of Claude Neal, by James R. McGovern.