On Oct. 18, 1934 — 78 years ago this week — a young white woman named Lola Cannady left her home near Marianna, Fla., to water the family hogs. She never returned. Her bludgeoned body was later found nearby. She had been raped.
Claude Neal, a black farm worker, was arrested for her murder after bloody clothes and other evidence tied him to the crime, and, for his safety, he was moved to Alabama, where he eventually admitted to killing Cannady.
Soon afterward, a group of armed men from Marianna arrived in Alabama and busted Neal from the jail. They brought him back to Florida, intending to publicly lynch him — but first they tortured him to death at a remote location, mutilated his body, then hanged him from a tree in the Marianna courthouse square.
A riot ensued, with whites searching out and beating the black townspeople, and eventually the National Guard was called in to quell it.
No one was ever charged with Neal’s murder, but the FBI last year reopened the investigation into the case — believed to be the last public lynching to have taken place in the country.
And now along comes “American Ghost,” the excellent new novel by Florida resident Janis Owens, which contains a fictionalized account of what happened in Marianna and how the story reverberates in contemporary times. Owens has 30 years of research and some family history to support her story — some of her ancestors witnessed the Neal lynching.
Owens, who will be at The BookMark in Neptune Beach on Oct. 30 to discuss the book, grew up near Marianna and has written extensively about life there before, during and after the Civil Rights Era.
Many of us grew up in similar environments — small towns with clear racial boundaries and an ingrained mindset regarding white superiority.
And many of us — particularly those of us who are white — have shrouded those memories under a more appropriate veil of tolerance and equality.
Owens lifts the veil.
What she reveals — although ugly and painful — also offers a road to understanding why racism persists, and how long-buried secrets can eat away at a person’s ability to evolve.
Maybe this doesn’t apply to you.
But more likely, it does. From the Trayvon Martin case to recent complaints in the city’s fire department, racial issues pepper the community’s news roundups as frequently as thunderstorms. And while we often decry civil injustice, we rarely take the time to understand it.
Organizations such as the OneJax Institute remain critically important. OneJax, which last year officially became part of the University of North Florida, recently received a $30,000 grant from the Community Foundation. The money will be used to support Project Breakthrough, an initiative for educating community leaders about structural racism and how to dismantle it.
Similarly, Jacksonville Community Council Inc. issues an annual Race Relations Progress Report. Last year’s document shows that in this region, a black baby is twice as likely to die as a white baby, and only 66 percent of black students graduate from high school on time, as opposed to 82 percent of white students.
Such facts are not just statistics. Racial disparities indicate deep-rooted Civil Rights issues that have never been resolved, and our perpetual failure to address them, I believe, stems in part from our failure to understand how we each play a role in these ghastly inequities.
Owens’ book helps this process germinate. The historical context she provides is tangled up in a love story, a family drama and assorted tragedies and occurrences — otherwise known as life. She tracks a fictional town’s continued intolerance toward outsiders to a systemic, generational tradition steeped in poverty, ignorance and familial loyalty. Only then can we see how injustice developed and became ingrained, even as the years passed and more evolved ways of thinking spread through neighboring communities.
Discrimination continues to plague us, both locally and nationally. Many of us don’t see ourselves as part of the problem — but nor do we participate in anything resembling a solution.
In “American Ghost,” Owens’ characters upturn their lives in an effort to reconcile their pasts with who they’ve become.
Maybe we should, too.
Booker blogs at mylefthook.com.