Harris County, 1912: The lynchings in my family’s history

Karen Branan is a longtime journalist who grew up in Columbus and graduated from the University of Georgia. Branan’s book, “The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets and My Search for the Truth,” was published in 2016. This article first in appeared in the Guardian. Branan now lives in Washington D.C.

What is your most unforgettable memory? I asked my 90-year-old grandmother, the sheriff’s widow.

“The hanging,” she replied without pause. She told me of a woman and some men “hanged” in the open, downtown, “for a murder.”

She was 17 at the time, living in Hamilton, Georgia, about 90 miles southwest of Atlanta. I thought she was talking about white people found guilty under law, so I let it be. Something in me was not yet ready to descend that deep staircase into my grandparents’ and the nation’s bloody basement.

Two years later, in 1986, I learned I was to be the grandmother of a racially mixed grandchild and I, who had worked and written for years about racial justice, suddenly found myself keeping her a secret from my family in Georgia for fear of their racist reaction.

I was irrationally haunted by unfounded fears for this black child, her black mother, my white son, my white self. Childhood memories began to emerge. Stories my father told me. Conversations among kinfolk on my grandmother’s porch.

» Lynching memorial confronts a brutal past

And then, one midnight in April 1993, a dead black woman, a hypnaogogic vision, appeared at the foot of my bed and said without words: Go home. Find out what happened.

This was an assignment I dared not refuse. For 30 years I had reported difficult stories – famine, murder, rape, corporate skulduggery, government corruption – yet this would challenge everything I knew about reporting, family and myself.

I had to report on my own family’s involvement in a lynching.

After many years of reporting between my home in Washington D.C. and my ancestral village in Georgia, I would finally piece together the 1912 lynching of a woman and three men, all African-American.

The underlying, unreported issue was alleged sex between white men and black women, some forced, some only mildly less so. My great-grandfather was the sheriff who left town on the mob’s orders; my grandfather, his deputy, stayed and kept order.

Many in the midnight mob of 100 were my relatives, both paternal and maternal, from poor country farmers and moonshiners to college-educated, white-collar townsfolk.

With no evidence, they had accused the four of murdering the sheriff’s nephew, a notorious predator of black girls. They strung them up beside a baptismal font outside a black church near the town square and shot them 300 times, then left the bodies hanging all next day. The coroner’s jury and the grand jury, both made up of some mob members, concluded the crime was committed by “parties unknown.”

I delved into the many layers of daily life from slavery forward, finding multiple new means that white people used to re-establish slavery, including disenfranchisement, convict labor, land fraud, wage theft, segregation – hardwiring racial inequality into every aspect of government.

Lynching was the most dramatic and, therefore, headline-grabbing of all the vicious ways white Americans found to keep their boots on black people’s necks.

Time and again as I investigated I was forced to face my own implicit biases — as when I failed for months to notice the youngest lynching victim’s last name was the same as a maternal great-grandmother’s, a reluctant realization that opened my eyes to the fact that not only did my kinfolk lynch four innocent people, but that one of them was a cousin.

More slowly than I care to admit, it dawned on me that this lynching was a strike against racially mixed family, not only mine but countless others in Harris County. And, most heartbreaking was the realization that by keeping my granddaughter a secret from her white relatives, I had absorbed this vile message and was perpetuating the crime in my own more modern fashion.

Until this moment of truth, I had veered back and forth about whether to publish, believing I had a choice. Over time, my research had a cumulative effect. Elderly black men and women told me I had to tell these stories as justice to the victims. I had discovered the victims were innocent and owed their grandchildren that truth, never established in reports of the time.

My clarity about how these practices live on in the present, in part because they have never been truly acknowledged and atoned, provided additional courage to tell my family’s ugly story. Ultimately, it became clear that my own spiritual salvation demanded I speak this truth.

I published my family’s story in a book, “The Family Tree.”

My fears of exile from family and reprisals from friends and strangers never materialized. There were small rebukes. A distant cousin wrote a hate letter, but the conservative cousin who bore the most prominent family name and whose reaction I dreaded wrote a note of congratulation.

The white Methodist church closed its doors to a promised memorial service for the four victims when several members took issue with my book, but the library opened its doors and a large biracial crowd turned out for a painful and honest discussion of race relations never before held in this deeply conservative town. An interracial group working for racial justice has emerged in Hamilton and recently held a service to recognize and offer reparation for a 1947 jailhouse lynching. Plans are under way to also memorialize the 1912 lynching.

Countless white people have approached me to confess their own family racial secrets and to ask advice about revealing them. I encourage them to do so for their own wellbeing and that of our beleaguered country. Very soon, I remind them, there will be no living witnesses. Very few exist today.

Black people have thanked me for providing opportunity for both races to come together to discuss these long taboo issues. The daughter of a 91-year-old woman I apologized to for her father’s jailhouse lynching on my sheriff grandfather’s watch told me it changed her mother’s life when I reached out. Another African-American friend told me it helps black people to forgive when whites do what I am doing.

An unexpected reward has been the numerous African-American cousins – both blood kin discovered through DNA matches and adopted cousins linked through slavery – that have come forward to sit at my table and invite me to theirs, including cousins of my cousin John Moore, the youngest man lynched in 1912. We grew up in close proximity, never knowing one another nor about this lynching.

But the best reward came when I introduced my precious granddaughter to her great-grandmother, who took her into her arms and her heart and chastised me severely for keeping her a secret.