On Jan. 22, 1912, three men and a woman were lynched in Hamilton, Ga. The four, all African-American, were taken from jail cells where they were awaiting trial for allegedly having killed a local bachelor. They were marched through the night to a tree by Friendship Baptist Church and killed. It was well after dark, but the sounds of the mob, the gunfire and the screams of the victims woke children in nearby houses.
Decades later, Karen Branan spoke with these children. They’d grown up, lived their lives and grown old, carrying their memories of that night with them. Branan, a journalist, had grown up in nearby Columbus and had heard whispers of the lynching. She was seeking the truth behind a story that was nearly out of living memory.
“My first interviews were with the old folks, the ones I call the ‘Ancient Mariners’ in the book,” she says in a phone interview from her home in D.C.
“I was expecting very little when I went down there to talk to them.”
She thought they would deny the lynching had ever happened, like her own mother did. Or that they would be afraid to talk or simply too old to recall with any clarity. Instead, they recounted that night as if they had been sitting on their porches, waiting for someone to come along and ask them what happened the night.
“None of them batted an eye,” Branan says. “They just told me this story.”
“The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth” is the culmination of Branan’s 21 years of research. Branan, who has written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other newspapers, approached the story as a reporter, going through letters and diaries as well as interviewing people who remembered that night. She realized she had family on both sides of the Hamilton lynching: a great grandfather who was the complicit sheriff, numerous relations who hid behind masks and participated in the killing, and one mixed-race cousin who was among those hanged from a tree and shot full of bullets.
She felt the story had to be told – even if it went against her family and her upbringing.
“Not many white Southern women write about the misdeeds and the sins of their ancestors,” Branan says. “It’s bred into us. It’s in our DNA not to do it. I had to find the story, and then I had to find the courage.”
She wasn’t shy with what she found. As the descendant of several small-town sheriffs and the member of a family whose ethnically diverse branches twine through both town and country in Harris County, Ga., even old-timers she’d never met knew of her or at least of her family. Some of them were descended from her great-great-grandfather’s slaves – or from slave-owners’ “second families” with women they owned.
“Some of them told me some pretty rough stuff about my sheriff grandfather,” says Branan. She thinks her age, 74, helped her gain people’s trust, and also prevented her from really caring what people would think: So long as a story is true, she says, she’s not afraid to tell it.
“There were some areas that were more difficult than others” to get people to talk about, Branan says. “The African-Americans, by and large, talked freely of the sexual aspect to this lynching and to other forms of Jim Crow life in Harris County. The white people were more hesitant about that.”
So much violence and repression, Branan learned, stemmed from fears at that time of interracial sex – or miscegenation, as it was called. In everyday Harris County, it was pure taboo. One black man remembered a white grandfather who would not acknowledge him.
The lynchings were tied to miscegenation. The original victim, a white man related to the sheriff, had been found shot on the porch of a black woman. And while the man’s actual killer made a deathbed confession in the 1930s, people at the time thought his death was caused by other African-Americans trying to protect the woman. Some also feared that two of the lynching victims, Loduska “Dusky” Crutchfield and Burrell Hardaway, would have revealed the bachelor’s interracial hedonism.
Even today this remains a hush-hush topic.
“There are people, including relatives in Harris County, who probably would burn me at the stake if they could get away with it,” Branan says. “I was told by the daughter of an older cousin who lives in Harris County that they would be very unhappy if the ancestors were defamed.”
Some told her the book has errors. Harris asked them to point out the mistakes. So far, only one minor error has come to light.
As for the major aspects of “The Family Tree,” Branan has complete confidence, and she feels it’s part of an essential conversation, even 104 years after the lynching. A memorial to its victims, which was to be held last month at Hamilton United Methodist Church, was moved to the Harris County Public Library after angry parishioners complained. In this, in her research, and in keeping up with national news, Branan has become increasingly aware of how racially unequal the U.S. continues to be.
“It’s in the health care system, it’s in the educational system. I can’t think of a system where there is equality,” Branan says. “This business with cops killing black people for no good reason – lately it seems it’s for no good reason. It’s become apparent to all that black lives really do not matter to white people as much as white lives do. We have a very long way to go.”
The Family Tree
Atria, 304 pages, $26