Wiley Hall is a former columnist with the Baltimore Evening Sun.
‘The Family Tree” combines murder, miscegenation, moonshine and mob justice. It is a messy story, the way family secrets and selective memory are often messy; it is a story that is at once stomach-churning and heartbreaking, which is what sometimes happens when you poke and scratch at old wounds.
This is the true history of the early-20th-century lynching of three black men and a black woman in rural Georgia following the murder of a white man. Many will find it a hard story to digest, although this is not a maudlin account. Journalist Karen Branan unpacks the results of 20 years of research with the clinical detachment of a doctoral thesis.
Ultimately, though, this is a story well worth putting yourself through. We live in an age when some African Americans feel compelled to insist that Black Lives Matter and some whites respond, “Why, whatever can you mean?,” provoking fury and frustration. It is useful to be reminded that this little dance is as old as the Model T Ford. Branan does such a thorough job of putting the violence at the heart of her story in context that there is no room for ducking and dodging on either side.
“The Family Tree” opens in 1984, when Branan, then in her 40s, interviews her 90-year-old grandmother, hoping to capture family history for future generations. When Branan asks the elderly woman a seemingly simple question — “And what is your most unforgettable memory?” — she is expecting an interesting but mundane answer: maybe an old love affair or insight into what it was like to be a little girl at the turn of the century.
Instead, her grandmother answers: “The hanging. . . . They hanged a woman and some men right downtown in Hamilton when I was young. I was told to stay home, but everyone else was going, so I sneaked out.”
This is a layered moment, almost a confession, as if the story of that hanging had been lying there all those years, waiting for the right question at the right time. Branan’s mother appeared to have been waiting, too. “You can’t believe some things she says,” she warns the author anxiously. “She embroiders, you know.”
Nevertheless, that exchange catapults Branan into a decades-long odyssey through the past, interviewing reluctant neighbors, family members and witnesses; poring through newspaper archives; verifying or debunking various versions of the truth.
She expected that her hardest task would be confirming that a hanging even occurred. She expected to have to delve into deeply hidden community secrets. But racial violence often is hidden in plain sight. The hanging was a big enough deal in its time that it was widely reported in the national media and was the subject of dialogue that sounds all too familiar: blacks insisting, in effect, that “Negro lives matter” and whites responding, “Whatever can you mean?”
Branan also finds that her family history is intertwined with the hanging. Her great-grandfather had just become the sheriff when the murders occurred, and his role was neither as noble nor as innocent as the family had been led to believe. She also finds, in a strange twist, that she is a distant relative of one of the victims as well.
If this sounds messed up, that gives you a good idea of how things were back then. It seems that when people weren’t sleeping together, they were trading moonshine, and when they weren’t sleeping together or trading moonshine, they were fighting. Vendettas raged back and forth across racial dividing lines. You needed a scorecard to keep track. No wonder, as Branan writes, the good people of the town were so desperate to put a stop to the violence while pretending none of it was going on. The press played as interesting a role then as it does today. Reporters swooped in, attracted by the sensation but reluctant to ask too many questions for fear of offending readers.
In a peculiar way, “The Family Tree” is a fitting companion to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved.” Her novel dramatizes the generational effect of racial violence in the form of the spiteful ghost of a 2-year-old who died fleeing slavery. Branan also is examining the generational effect of racial violence but in the haunted consciousness of whites rather than the victims.
If all this sounds depressing, well, it is. At the same time, there is something exhilarating about confronting the past in all its ugliness and realizing that doing so has made you stronger.
“As I bring this book to a close, America is once again aflame with racial violence and discrimination,” Branan writes in her afterword. “There is no question that, as a nation, we have yet to honestly face our history and to truly embrace African Americans as full-fledged citizens and members of our human family. I believe this is the only way we can heal, as individuals and as a nation.”
Still, one wonders whether 100 years from now, somebody’s grandmother will be asked to share her most unforgettable memory. And the elderly woman will shock her family by answering: “The shooting. . . . Police shot an unarmed black man when I was a little girl.”
By Karen Branan
Atria. 292 pp. $26