Karen Branan. The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth. New York and other cities: Atria Books, 2016.
[NOTE: Here we are again, at yet another review of a book on life in the South during the Age of Jim Crow. As I’ve said before, trying to reconstruct a picture of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow South is a puzzlement: one needs to read as many accounts by individual witnesses as possible, then try to combine those first-hand accounts with information from secondary sources, so here we go. . . . ]
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Karen Branan, talking to her ninety year-old grandmother, asked what her “most unforgettable memory” was, and the old lady replied, “The hanging. They hanged a woman and some men right downtown in Hamilton when I was young.” (2) It was this admission by her grandmother that set Branan on a twenty-year odyssey to unearth “the truth” of the events that led to that lynching in 1912 Georgia, especially the role of her great-grandfather, “Buddy” Hadley, Harris County’s newly-elected sheriff, in the affair. Sheriff Hadley was a man Branan had been taught to revere, because family lore had it that he had tried to prevent the lynching but had been unsuccessful.
Branan’s decision to entitle her work The Family Tree, was an inspired one. The murder victim, Norman Hadley, a local white “playboy” with a fondness for black women, was Sheriff Hadley’s nephew, and therefore a cousin of the author. Moreover, as she continued her research, Branan also discovered that one of the lynching victims allegedly involved in the murder of Norman Hadley, a mulatto named Johnie Moore, was also related to her.
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In highlighting the underlying causes of Norman Hadley’s murder, and of the tense race relations in Harris County, Georgia, and its seat of Hamilton, Branan emphasizes the intricate web of relationships woven by interracial sex (the fathering of mixed-race children by local white men and their black consorts) and one of the county’s major sources of income, the production and sale of moonshine liquor, an endeavor that attracted both blacks and whites, usually working together.
Branan furnishes a map of the Harris County area, as well as a fairly detailed, two-page family tree that she hopes will aid the reader in wending his or her way through the intricacies of the lynching itself, its historical context, and the short- and long-term consequences of the events she describes. The resulting monograph, filtered through her career as a professional journalist, is an engrossing, sometimes confusing tale of race, lust, crime, and violence in a single county (and its environs) in Jim Crow Georgia. It marries “true crime” with a healthy dose of William Faulkner, a study of ties that bind in a small rural area, but can also kill.
In sketching the history of Harris County, Karen Branan begins with her life in the town of Hamilton. As her narrative unfolds, Branan clearly is surprised again and again at how naïve her view had been of Hamilton during her girlhood. She soon realizes that if life there, and in the surrounding county, had been as idyllic as she remembered—and as she’d been told over and over again by her parents and grandparents—then there is no room for the grim “truth” she is gradually uncovering, not only about the 1912 lynching but also about its ramifications over the next two decades. Admittedly, a lot of the “ramifications” she traces depend upon what, to this reviewer, sometimes seems like shaky evidence, but, if the reader accepts the author’s premises, then the whole thing begins to make a sort of sense.
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One of the strengths of this work is the Branan’s research in primary sources, especially local newspapers and county and state court records. Moreover, she began her research in the 1990s, when she still had access to a group she calls the “Ancient Mariners,” elderly Harris County residents, black and white, who, like the character in Coleridge’s famous poem, “unflinchingly shared stories that had haunted them for years.” (262)
Although setting the scene in 1912, Branan also does a nice job briefly reviewing earlier “big issues” like slavery, Reconstruction, the creation of the Myth of the Lost Cause, and the establishment of “legal” segregation in the Jim Crow Era, showing how they actually unfolded in the microcosmic southern world of Hamilton and Harris County.
Branan came to her “search for the truth” many years after the event and, by then, her own life had taken her through college at the University of Georgia (during the tumultuous period when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were helping to desegregate that institution); made her a racial liberal; and sent her out of the South to explore journalism on the West Coast and in the Northeast.
The research project she decided to pursue upon her return to the South forced Branan to confront uncomfortable truths, and, more significantly, try to convince her family and others in Harris County that those truths were worth unearthing—and publicizing. It cannot have been a comfortable position for her, and that might help explain why it took two decades to complete her work.
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And what did Branan discover through her research?
Her great-grandfather was far from the stern county sheriff who faced down a mob in a futile effort to protect the prisoners. In fact, the newly-elected Sheriff Hadley had been told by some of the leaders of the lynch mob that it would be better for his future career, not to mention his health, if he were somewhere else on the day they’d chosen for their revenge, and he’d taken the hint. Subsequently, Hadley “just happened” to be in nearby Columbus on “official business” the day the “Hamilton Avengers” raided the jail; took four prisoners from their cells; marched them across the town square; hanged them from an old oak tree on the grounds of a black church; and fired bullets into the corpses.
Dusty Crutchfield, the only woman among the prisoners, had been given the chance to save her life (because she was a woman, though a black one, and the “Hamilton Avengers” were of course all about protecting “womanhood” from defilement). All Crutchfield had to do was to identify which of her fellow prisoners had killed Norman Hadley. Instead of taking the deal, Dusty supposedly told her inquisitor to “Pull the rope, white man!” Yet, this anecdote does not appear in contemporary accounts of the lynching; Branan learned it while interviewing elderly black residents of Harris County who claimed to remember the events.
Nothing was done legally to punish any of the “Hamilton Avengers.” Rather, the inquest ruled that the four prisoners had been killed “by person or persons unknown.” Branan’s research suggests, however, that the proper response to that verdict should have been a sarcastic “sure they were!”, because her interviews revealed the identities of many, if not most, members of the white mob.
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Despite constant efforts by groups like the NAACP to secure passage of an anti-lynching law in Congress, nothing was done, and for the most mundane of reasons—the Democratic Party, even under “the South’s friend” during the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, relied on southern white votes to maintain its hold on power in the South, and the President’s backing of an anti-lynching bill would have weakened that support.
Georgia was the number one state in lynching for much of the early twentieth century. Then, in the 1920s, lynchings in Georgia decreased, and from 1927 through 1929 no one died in the state at the end of a rope, with justice administered by a group of local “avengers.”
To help explain this apparent anomaly, Branan, relying on an otherwise unconfirmed bit of information from a local black farmer, argues that a local white woman, Miss Lula Mobley (yes, another of Branan’s relatives!), the head of the women’s Methodist Missionary Society, had convinced local white ladies that the time had come for them to wield their “ultimate weapon,” threatening to leave their husbands and move to Columbus if lynching didn’t stop in Harris County. (Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, anyone?)
And, speaking of local lore, Branan also ran across evidence that, within a year of the lynching, African Americans in Harris County believed that none of those killed in 1912 had been guilty. As a result, according to this view, there occurred “divine retribution”—one after another of the men suspected of being members of the “Hamilton Avengers” met untimely, violent ends. As one of Branan’s sources put it, they “died with their boots on. . . Unnatural deaths, you understand.” (194)
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Karen Branan’s study of life–and death–in Hamilton, Georgia, in 1912 provides interesting information about events leading to the lynching; tries, with mixed success, to reveal various “secrets” about underlying causes of the lynching; and follows the author’s “search for the truth” without at times revealing said “truth” all that clearly. As is sometimes the case, modern books about the Jim Crow South that claim to offer the “truth” about that shameful era promise a bit more than they can deliver.
And yet—it is hard to beat Branan’s measured summary of that ugly episode in Georgia during the Age of Jim Crow:
I now understand that the lynch mob was not made up of monsters (perhaps with the exception of one or two), but of ordinary men who had little or no awareness of the history they carried within themselves and who did a monstrous thing. Unable to deal with their own demons, they took everything out on those hapless four people who represented everything they hated in themselves. They had convinced themselves that the Negro was not fully human and, therefore, that killing him or her was not of great import. I realize the fact that they lived in a time and a place that reinforced and even encouraged these delusions made it much easier for those men to carry out the lynching. (256)
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to several books on the subject: