Harris County, Georgia, 1912. A white man, the beloved nephew of the county sheriff, is shot dead on the porch of a black woman. Days later, the sheriff sanctions the lynching of a black woman and three black men, all of them innocent. For Karen Branan, the great-granddaughter of that sheriff, this isn’t just history, this is family history.
Branan spent nearly twenty years combing through diaries and letters, hunting for clues in libraries and archives throughout the United States, and interviewing community elders to piece together the events and motives that led a group of people to murder four of their fellow citizens in such a brutal public display. Her research revealed surprising new insights into the day-to-day reality of race relations in the Jim Crow–era South, but what she ultimately discovered was far more personal. As she dug into the past, Branan was forced to confront her own deep-rooted beliefs surrounding race and family, a process that came to a head when Branan learned a shocking truth: she is related not only to the sheriff, but also to one of the four who were murdered. Both identities—perpetrator and victim—are her inheritance to bear.
A gripping story of privilege and power, anger, and atonement, The Family Tree transports readers to a small Southern town steeped in racial tension and bound by powerful family ties. Branan takes us back in time to the Civil War, demonstrating how plantation politics and the Lost Cause movement set the stage for the fiery racial dynamics of the twentieth century, delving into the prevalence of mob rule, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the role of miscegenation in an unceasing cycle of bigotry.
Through all of this, what emerges is a searing examination of the violence that occurred on that awful day in 1912—the echoes of which still resound today—and the knowledge that it is only through facing our ugliest truths that we can move forward to a place of understanding.
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The Family Tree
In 1984, G’mamma was ninety and I was a middle-aged journalist sitting on the edge of her magnificent antique sleigh bed, atop her hand-crocheted ecru coverlet littered with orange peels, gazing at those perfectly manicured, fire-engine-red nails I’d known since childhood. We were in her house in Hamilton, Georgia, the house I had known since childhood. The ever-present Salem cigarette teetered precariously between her long white fingers. She’d smoked three packs a day for as long as I could remember. Now she was little more than bones and wrinkles and a cloud-wisp of hair, but the life-force was as fierce as ever.
I had come to hear her stories and preserve them for my children and future generations. Placing my tape recorder gently beside her, I, someone who had unflinchingly interviewed murderers, corrupt officials, and gang leaders, eased timidly into an oral history with this frail woman. Any fears of intimidating her with equipment and interrogations vanished as she slipped into Tallulah Bankhead mode, spinning stories of girlhood crushes on male schoolteachers, her love of handwork, her pride in her antiques and other “pretty things.” There were few needlecrafts she had not mastered.
Above the mantelpiece, next to her bed, hung a large tinted photograph, Miss Berta as a Young Belle, brown eyes flirtatious beneath an elegant straw bonnet proudly perched atop careful curls. The hat was a gift from Mr. Bob, her father. She was his only child, an adored, spoiled, quick-tempered, high-strung girl.
G’mamma had clearly relished our conversation, but I could see that both she and the tape were running out, so I decided to end with a simple question. “And what is your most unforgettable memory?” I asked.
“The hanging,” she replied without pause, a faint, nervous smile playing at her thin lips. “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.”
As I look back on that moment, in which I was exposed to the first whiff of knowledge about a huge and terrible event, I realize that a combination of ignorance, inexperience, a lack of readiness, and a certain training in southern behavior made me hold my tongue.
In the adjoining parlor, my mother eavesdropped. “You can’t believe some things she says,” she warned me as I left. “She embroiders, you know.” I could not know then that eleven years later I’d embark on a full-scale excavation of this piece of family history, and that my mother, who learned early to revere her sheriff patriarchs, would continue the embroidery of memory.
My experience with memory embroidery began early, though I would not see it that way until I began my research for this book. When I was eleven and my sister ten, we learned that my father was keeping a huge secret from us. Although he was still a well-loved and successful physician at the time, he was drunk, as he often was back then, when he told us this story. As usual we’d been begging him to stop drinking, and so he told us this story as a way of explaining why he drank and could not stop. When he was a very young man living in Hamilton, he had accidentally killed a young black woman. She “sassed” him, he explained; she had refused to step aside to let him pass.
“I backhanded her and her head hit one of those iron poles outside Cook’s Store. I didn’t mean to kill her.” His patent-leather hair glistened in the late-afternoon gloom of our living room. I thought he looked like Clark Gable. “Nothing was ever done,” he continued in a voice softened by alcohol. “They just took her home, told some lie, and nothing was ever said about it again.” Then he added, “If you ever want to punish someone for a crime, do nothing. They’ll do a much better job on themselves than you could ever do.” I took that knowledge, made more potent by the warm bourbon of his breath, and tucked it away on a shelf reserved for things that scared me. In that way, I never really forgot them; I simply deflated their power, turned them into “stories.”
In 1993, on a rainy night in April, that story G’mamma told came looking for me in another bedroom, my own on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Outside, a gentle April rain fell; my husband was away in South Africa, filming a documentary. This time the story came in the form of a hypnogogic vision, a scene appearing in the mind’s eye at the threshold of sleep. I saw a large, dead black woman laid out at the end of my bed, a burn across one of her temples. She spoke without words, but the message was clear: Go home. Find out what happened. I had always sensed that a day would come when my career as a reporter and my complicated family history would collide in some crucial way, and I was certain this was that long-expected assignment. I accepted it without question.
I was not alone in my new preoccupation. The nation, indeed the world, was being drawn to acknowledge past wrongs. While racial violence flared with the ruthless beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, followed by race riots and the burning of African American churches throughout the South by white skinheads, old racial crimes were being revived and some actually prosecuted.
At the time that I experienced this vision at my home on Capitol Hill, I’d been thinking and writing about the young woman whom my father, now dead, told me long ago he’d accidentally killed; I’d been doing so as a way to ease her into my consciousness. I thought that she might be the one I saw in my vision, and thus went home to learn more about what happened between this nameless young black woman and the surly teenager who would become my father.
I returned to Hamilton, a small town no longer peopled with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, but still home to cousins and elderly men and women, black and white, with strong memories and ties to my kinfolk. It was no longer a thriving village of cotton gins and overflowing mercantiles; a train depot; large, ambitious white families; and longtime black servants. Now it was a town of antique shops and thrift stores, a tanning parlor, a drugstore, and several low-end restaurants. Still standing were the Confederate statue and the antebellum houses of Mobleys, Williamses, Hudsons, and Bealls, one inhabited by Little Sister Hudson Garrett, the last descendant of one of the ruling families, and still living on the square.
“Your father never killed that woman,” my aunt Evelyn told me. She would know. Only twelve years old at the time, she was with him when whatever happened took place. Indeed, he’d told me it was Evelyn whose “honor” he was defending by smacking a black girl who refused to step off their path. “He backhanded her, sure. That sassy little Pearly Lee. But she didn’t even fall down, much less die. Where’d he get that crazy idea? Why, Pearly Lee died just recently.” I checked; she was right. Others, black and white, men and women, confirmed her version. “Ben Williams never killed a soul,” they’d say, shaking their heads in wonder that he could hold such a misconception for so long, could drink on it, drug on it, die and carry it to his grave never realizing it wasn’t true.
Nevertheless, as I asked my questions, other stories of violence, racial and otherwise, emerged. “Surely you know about Tip Top?” someone would ask, then proceed to tell me about my great-uncle Dock Williams, a rough-and-tumble, red-faced old son of a gun, who murdered and was murdered atop Pine Mountain in 1920, and about Louis “Sugar Bear” Murray, a black man who was hanged in the jailhouse for the crimes of the rich men’s sons who were really responsible. In addition to the Tip Top murders, I was treated to more tales of white-on-white murders—the Mobley brothers who killed the Truett man, the Truett man who killed the Robinson man, and on it went. In the courthouse I found a “Parties Unknown” box of coroners’ reports detailing more grisly murders, bodies of black men and women dumped in the river, weighted with rocks. On that one visit, I heard so many violent tales that, as I drove home, I envisioned the waters of the serpentine Mulberry Creek and the once-magnificent Chattahoochee River red with blood, not clay, their beds pebbled with teeth and bones.
Back in Evelyn’s tiny dining room, I asked her about “the hanging” of G’mamma’s memory. “Oh, that,” she half-scoffed. “That was a bunch of men fightin’ over some colored woman.” She took a drag off her cigarette, curled her lip, and added, rolling her eyes, “They did that back then, you know.”
The next day, at my sister’s house in Atlanta, I picked up a book she’d just received for her birthday. There, in a sentence, I found all I needed: “Three men and a woman were lynched in Hamilton, Georgia, on January 22, 1912.” Back home on Capitol Hill, adrenaline rushing, I sprinted the seven blocks from home to the Periodical Reading Room at the Library of Congress. At best I’d thought I’d find a paragraph or two buried deeply within a newspaper. Wrongly, I’d assumed southern newspaper editors were not proud of mob justice and often let such events escape notice.
I had not expected bold headlines, a major front-page story in the Atlanta Constitution: FOUR NEGROES LYNCHED BY HAMILTON AVENGERS; WOMAN ONE OF VICTIMS. Avengers, my brain tabulated: Avenging what?
And then I saw it coming like headlights gleaming out of the fog, the third boldfaced headline: Negroes were accused of murdering Hadley. Hadley. My mother’s maiden name. Which Hadley? Murdered? This I’d never heard. The next headline and some further probing provided the answer: Hadley, Who Was a Well-to-do Planter Was Shot Sunday Afternoon While Sitting in His Home—Negroes Held on Suspicion—About Hundred Men in Mob. By now I had stopped breathing, but not reading. Suddenly the microfilm machine lost focus and, while I fiddled frantically, an intercom announced that the library was closing and lights began to blink. I would have to wait until tomorrow.
I turned the machine off and for a moment sat drawn into myself, barely breathing, eyes closed, scalp drawing tight the way it does just before a virus settles in. Well, here it was, the thing I sought. “Be careful when you go shaking those family trees,” Evelyn had warned. “You never know what you’ll find.” She was sure as hell right about that.
Norman Hadley, the murder victim, was my cousin. My great-grandfather, Marion Madison Hadley, the newly elected sheriff, was his uncle. A sickening shock coursed through me. A cousin I’d never heard of had been shot through the head and killed. It never occurred to me that a kinsman had ever been murdered. Both sides of my family—sheriffs, deputies, a judge, legislators, a senator—seemed so well defended, especially against black people.
A woman and three men, one of them a preacher, two of them farmers, all of them black, had been hanged by a mob of men, many surely related to Norman Hadley. Beside the baptismal pool, outside the Friendship Baptist Church, a short walk from where the sheriff lived. Hanged and shot more than three hundred times on a wintry January night. And as I sat there growing numb, I intuitively knew that many more of my kinfolk had been caught up in that madness, on one side or the other.
I desperately hoped the sheriff had tried to stop it. In that moment I experienced an odd sense that I had known all these people, the murderers, the silent ones, the murdered ones, the powerless ones. I felt myself there with each man, woman, and child snared in that net and I hungered for every detail of their lives. Who were they? How did they live, think, vote, love, laugh, write, speak, work, live, raise children, treat their neighbors? What did they know of one another, the murderers and the murdered? What long road had they traveled together? I was not willing to accept that this was simply the way white southerners dealt with “racial matters.” This was, to my knowledge, the only public lynching ever carried out in Harris County. There was something I and perhaps others could learn from this tragic affair. Perhaps we could understand what turns mild-mannered, churchgoing family men into cold-blooded killers, how something so shameful happens in the heart of a simple village and virtually disappears and where, if anywhere, it goes; whether it ripples down through generations, finding new forms in the future; and where, indeed, I might find its residue in my own life. I determined to learn all I could.
Table of Contents
1 My Sweet Village 9
2 Plantation Politics 20
3 The Unveiling 38
4 New Sheriff in Town 44
5 Norman's Murder 50
6 Though Silent He Speaks 58
7 Negro Desperadoes 69
8 Nobody's Negroes 78
9 Vendettas 83
10 Brazen Iniquity 91
11 Heroines 96
12 Race Wars 105
13 Clutch of Circumstance 119
14 Special Court 123
15 The Die Is Cast 144
16 The Lynching 156
17 "So Quietly Was the Work Done" 167
18 Parties Unknown 182
19 "…Died with Their Boots On" 191
20 Roaring Twenties 199
21 The Ladies' Ultimatum 205
22 The Curse Continues 213
23 Dad Doug 220
24 Guile and Innocence 236
25 Enslaved by History 244
Selected Bibliography 275