This week’s Notable Narrative recounts the murder of Claude Neal by a lynch mob in 1934 and introduces his family, which has been waiting for decades for someone to name the killers and hold them to account. Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery talked with us by phone this week about reporting and writing “Spectacle: the lynching of Claude Neal.” Here are excerpts from our conversation.
There was a line in your piece that made me think you had been working on it since 2009, when you were in Marianna doing “For Their Own Good.” Is that true?
It is. I was spending a lot of time in Jackson County then. You talk to enough people, and pretty soon that story surfaces.
So you don’t remember where you first heard about it?
It may have been as simple as the Marianna, Fla., Wikipedia page. I can’t really recall. I do remember originally thinking it was potentially a story when I was in a hotel room in Jackson County on a “For Their Own Good” reporting trip, and I was just doing some research online. There’s a branch of CNN’s website called “iReport,” or something like that – it allows some kind of citizen interactivity. It was a solitary, random post from Orlando Williams saying, “We need a reporter to take a look to try to figure out who is responsible for the 1934 lynching of my uncle Claude Neal.”
I thought, “Well, there’s a willing descendant who could maybe help me tell the story.” So I emailed him originally, and he was completely on board. I was shocked to learn that this had such a large impact at the time. It ran on the front page of the New York Times but had been almost forgotten. Nobody had ever been brought to account for this barbaric act of terrorism. I thought maybe I can take a shot at it, all these years later.
Had the paper already committed to a story on it, or did the FBI involvement in 2011 make the difference?
No, no. We didn’t know anything about the FBI until I had already spent about – obviously I work on different things all the time – but I had invested about a year of reporting on Claude Neal before I heard anything about the FBI’s involvement.
It’s useful for people toknow about the time in. It’s not like you can go down, spend a week, and come up with a story like this.
We thought it was a story from the very beginning. It randomly happened that the FBI decided, for the first time in 76 years, to open the case.
When it came to writing, did you think a lot about how to describe the place, the setting?
It’s one of the great challenges in doing historic narrative nonfiction, connecting people in 2011 to a small town in Florida in 1934. How on earth do you do that? So we started in the present, but I wanted, in that section where we kick it back to ’34, I wanted to very quickly, in almost a pretty way – it’s not necessarily poetic, but in some fluid, pretty way – to rattle off this list of items that might help people connect to that time period. … I wanted in this tangible way to immediately stick people in that time period, sort of creating a mental collage of items from that era, with prices as well, give a sampling of what it was like, of how they existed.
Do you think of a bright spine for the story, a main arc? How do you fold in the complicating elements so they become part of the story without running it off the rails?
In my mind, originally this was a story about the lasting effects of a traumatic event, and how trauma is inherited. Because the most surprising thing to me was that 76 years later, Claude Neal’s descendents – even those who never knew him and weren’t born at the time – still deal with the effects of that barbaric mob daily, in real ways. His daughter is wheelchair-bound because of the physical effects, but others still bear these incredible emotional scars.
The original arc was that even though we’ve all forgotten about Claude Neal, there’s a family that was left scattered and destroyed in many ways because of that event. They had finally found a way to reconnect, and they had finally found someone to listen to them.
Meanwhile, there’s another arc; that’s my inquisition. It’s not first person, but hopefully, readers felt the sense that I was taking them along to investigate this old unsolved crime. In a way, that’s the secondary arc in my head. And it’s unfortunately an arc that never gets resolved. If I had gotten someone on the record with the names of those six people, I think that would have become the primary arc, and there would have been a nice big bow on the end of the story, instead of this kind of open-ended finish.
Can you talk about how you approached the ending without a bow?
We had the FBI come in very late in the game and announce that they had opened the case. So in a way it was passing the baton to a government that had failed to do what was right for many, many years. It was such a hard thing to deal with, too, when I learned the FBI was investigating, back in…
I think it was May in the story.
Yes, May. Orlando immediately called me and says, “Guess who was at my house? The FBI.” And I thought, “Oh, my goodness.” I thought about doing a daily story. It was that newsworthy.
We talked about it here and decided no one would connect with that. In some ways, if we were trying to pull off a daily, it would have cheapened the full story. And so we decided to hope that no one else caught wind that the FBI was investigating. We decided to hold onto it and let the thing run in October when we had it all finished.
Did anybody else do any real coverage?
What was the most challenging part of writing the story, not the reporting but the writing?
It was really challenging trying to choose a main character. In many ways, I fell in love with Allie Mae Neal. She’s maybe the sweetest woman besides my own grandmother that I’ve ever met. She’s also a person who was really has become comfortable with not knowing who is responsible for killing her father. While she deals with the incredible pain from growing up without a dad and knowing that this event set her life on its particular haunting course, she had at some point decided that she’ll never know, and that’s okay. She chose to exist in those circumstances and attempt to be as happy as possible.
So she didn’t have an intense motivation to know who killed her father. Orlando did. But Orlando is a step removed from the story, from Allie Mae. Orlando wasn’t alive when Claude Neal was killed. He inherited the trauma because his mother dealt with demons for her entire life, stemming from that incident.
His life was affected because of how she lived, and how she was haunted. He was incredibly motivated. He had a desire, while Allie Mae didn’t really. But he wasn’t quite as appealing of a character as Allie Mae. We talked for a long while about who to go with. We opened with Allie Mae, but we bring Orlando in, and he gives the family its motivation to figure out this crime.
You want a main character to have a wish, and a main character that you can sympathize with. So they kind of both served that main character purpose.
This is the part of this kind of discussion that always makes me uncomfortable: talking about people as characters. These are real folks who are dealing with some heavy shit. And I hate to refer to them as characters, but for the mechanics of storytelling, I guess that’s important.
Picking the main character was hard, but probably harder than that was dealing with this really complicated situation which I couldn’t get anybody to give me those names. How do you deal with that? It kind of cast me in the same role as – put me in a similar ethical situation as – the historian, Dale Cox.
I heard the names, six last names, in conversation, and it was off the record, and it was from someone who couldn’t confirm and wasn’t directly connected. I tried like hell to put faces to those last names, to contact family members of people who might have been there, who had the same last names as the six men whose names I heard, and I couldn’t do it. No one would go on the record with that information. And so it was a really uneasy feeling and a quandary when writing this story. In a way, the fact that the FBI had opened the casesalvaged the story. Otherwise I might still be out there, trying to figure out who those six people were.
You might have been out there hunting forever.
But then we thought, “Let’s put it in the paper. And when the FBI releases its finding, we’ll come back and hopefully be able to provide people with those six names.”
And if not, the mystery continues.