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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Investigation of the Claude Neal lynching, 1934

Kester again emphasizes that his involvement in race and labor activism during the 1920s and 1930s was motivated by his concern for broad social justice for all humans. Kester links his beliefs specifically to the issue of racial violence in this excerpt by describing his 1934 investigation of the lynching of Claude Neal. His recollections of this incident reveal the ways in which people sought to bring about change and the opposition they faced.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Howard Kester, July 22, 1974. Interview B-0007-1. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

JACQUELYN HALL:
What did it mean to think of yourself as a Socialist? In what sense were you a Socialist? What kind of changes did you want to see come about?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, the only thing that I was concerned about . . . The thing that I was concerned about was justice for all people, and I was struggling to achieve the goals.
JACQUELYN HALL:
But what did you think it was going to take to bring about that?
HOWARD KESTER:
Well, I thought the only way we could do it was by word of mouth, and by writing about conditions, exposing conditions, and I became interested and concerned. In '34 I investigated my first lynching for the NAACP.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Was that the Claude Neal incident?
HOWARD KESTER:
Claude Neal.
JACQUELYN HALL:
That was incredible.
HOWARD KESTER:
That was a horrible affair.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I read the piece that you wrote. How did you happen to do that?
HOWARD KESTER:
Walter White had asked me to do it - undertake an investigation of the lynching.
JACQUELYN HALL:
Why did he think of you as someone to go and investigate a lynching?
HOWARD KESTER:
He knew of my concerns through the student movement, and whenever I went to New York I always went around to see Walter. I went to his home, had dinner with him, I knew the family, and I suppose that he just thought that I was foot loose and fancy free, and I could get off and go, and I would go. And I did, and I almost got lynched. I just did get away in time.
JACQUELYN HALL:
What happened?
HOWARD KESTER:
When I told Walter I'd go, he wrote the President of the Negro school in Tallahassee. What's that called now . . . Tallahassee University, University of Florida.
WILLIAM FINGER:
Is that Florida Union?
HOWARD KESTER:
Florida Union, that's right . . . and that I was coming and please give me all possible aid. And I went straight to Tallahassee, and it was on a Saturday night when I got there and Neal, I believe, was taken down from a limb on Sunday, I believe. And he called his faculty together . . . and I understand his feelings, I probably would have done the same thing if I had been in his shoes, and told them to have nothing whatever to do with me, because the legislature was going to meet and determine the funds the school was to receive, and if they found out that they were in any way mixed up with this investigation into this lynching, they'd (the college) be in trouble. And he was right. And I didn't know it of course. When I went there I saw a girl that I had met at Kings Mountain - a member of the faculty. And she came over to me hesitatingly, and she told me very quietly what the President had said, and she said, "But you go outside and you stand at the far corner of the porch, and I'll see if I can do anything to help you."
JACQUELYN HALL:
Who was that?
HOWARD KESTER:
No, I can't remember, I wish I could. So many of the people I worked with are gone now, and I just can't remember them all. I remember the face, I know exactly what she looked like.
JACQUELYN HALL:
So you stood at the corner of the porch?
HOWARD KESTER:
Yes, and in a minute or two she brought a Negro over, a young man, who was the Pastor of the Negro church in Marianna, and she said to me, "He might be able to help you." He and I talked in subdued tones for several minutes. I told him what I was trying to do, and I asked him if he thought he might help me and he said he didn't know. And I said, "Will you meet me at the church, would you meet me at the church maybe with some of your elders, or just by yourself on Sunday afternoon?" (The following Sunday afternoon, it was a weekend). And he said "I'll try to be there." When the time came for me to go to the church . . . now something told me . . . I have a little bit of woman's intuition . . . not to go in my car, to walk there like I was taking a late Sunday afternoon walk, and when I got there nobody was there, no lights or anything of that sort, and I decided to stay on the outside of the church. And just about dusk, cars began to come up the road into the church yard. Now, how they knew I was around there, I don't know, but they did. There was a ravine that led from the church down to Marianna. The church was up on a kind of a hill, and the ravine was full of briars and bushes and everything. They were looking for me, and they had flashlights and the lights from their cars, and there wasn't anything for me to do but crawl down the side of the hill to that ravine. I had told one of the Negro porters at the hotel what I was doing. I thought I could trust him. Had to trust somebody, and I didn't dare go in the front of the hotel, so I went around to the kitchen and he was there and let me in, and he took me upstairs, washed me and fixed me up, and then just as soon as I changed my clothes, I went down and spoke to the clerk at the desk, you know, and then went out on the front porch, just as if nothing had ever happened. But if they had laid hands on me that night, it would have been the last of me. I am sure of that. The next morning a fellow, a filling station operator where I traded, from whom I bought the picture of Neal hanging on the limb of the tree, I bought it from him . . . when I went over on Monday morning he said, "You better get out of town, they are looking for you." He didn't have to say it, but in a matter of thirty minutes I was on my way to Nashville.