Harvesting Strange Fruit: Humanizing the Victims of Lynching

Columns represent lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Debbie says:

The Equal Justice Initiative opened The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, in 2018. By all accounts, both are moving and memorable. The exhibit that seems to get the most coverage is the memorial structure on the center of the Memorial site, which …

… is constructed of over 800 corten steel monuments, one for each county in the United States where a racial terror lynching took place. The names of the lynching victims are engraved on the columns. The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.

Perhaps because the Memorial is a fresh reminder of old and very tender wounds, I have recently heard the specific stories of two victims of lynching, Thomas Finch and Claude Neal: even though I’ve been aware of the history of lynching all my adult life, I don’t know that I had ever before heard the names and circumstances of any particular event.

Thomas Finch’s story was featured on Reveal. Finch was shot and killed in 1936 by an Atlanta police officer. Finch, who was an orderly at an Atlanta hospital, was accused of rape by a white female patient (not the story of every lynching, but it occurs again and again). The layout of the hospital makes this accusation very unlikely. Finch was arrested by the Atlanta police, but they killed him before they took him to the police station. The policeman who shot him became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan. Atlanta has never acknowledged Finch’s death as a lynching, and the officer’s grandson (interviewed on the podcast) struggles with finding explanations for his grandfather’s behavior (“He was Grand Imperial Wizard for only a year to 18 months, so it wasn’t very long.”)

Claude Neal’s story was told on CodeSwitch. While lynching stories are potentially triggering by definition, be warned that this particular story is told in substantial and starkly horrifying detail. Neal was killed in Jackson County, Florida in 1934. He has the gruesome distinction of being the victim of one of the most well-attended lynchings in American history–somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 people were present at his death. This appears to be because he was arrested in Alabama, freed by a lynch mob, and brought back to Florida to be killed, which gave the killers the time to advertise his death rather like a concert or a race. Like Finch two years later, he was accused of raping and killing a white woman, though some people at the time believed the two had a consensual secret relationship.

Side note: the concept of “lynching” refers to taking prisoners out of formal police custody and due process to kill them rather than try them. Since the mid-1980s, some police departments have interpreted this to mean that pressuring the police at a demonstration or riot to keep arrests from happening can be called “lynching” and in fact people who tear themselves out of police custody can be charged with lynching … themselves. “the definition of “lynching” was broadened [in 1999] in the First District Court of Appeal’s decision in People v. Anthony J.: “We conclude that a person who takes part in a riot leading to his escape from custody can be convicted of his own lynching.” This is ridiculous in its own right and inexcusably trivializes the mob terror Black people suffered for decades.

Historically, we have heard more about the anti-lynching activists than about the victims: I could tell you a fair amount about Walter White and Ida B. Wells long before I ever heard of Thomas Finch and Claude Neal. For me, knowing about these men, being able to say their names, learn their stories, and recognize the suffering still alive in their descendants is an essential element of acknowledging the reality of this degrading American behavior.

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