Getting to the Roots of my Family Tree
by Karen Branan
Go home. Find out what happened, said the black ghost woman lying dead at the end of my bed one drizzly April evening in the ‘90s. This was the one thing I’d long dreaded the most. Still, I knew in that moment I would do whatever necessary to discover what happened come hell or high water.
When did this push into my Georgia family history truly start? When my son and his girlfriend, a young African American woman, announced nervously their “good news” that I was about to become a grandmother. Good news that inexplicably sent me into deep terror for the three of them, make that the four of us — despite the fact we lived in Minnesota in the 1980s, a far more liberal place than Georgia.
Soon after the “good news” announcement I began to sound like my racist mother still living in Georgia, saying things to my son like you’ll be ruined, they’ll banish you. I imagined dire futures for the baby and her mother. As an adolescent I argued endlessly with my family about the meanness of segregation; as an adult I’d worked and written for racial equality. Where were these thoughts coming from?
It was when that precious granddaughter was six years old and I had still not mustered the courage to tell her white southern great-grandmother about her, that the ghost woman I’d come to call Hazel appeared on my bed.
I did what she said and I am still doing it. I went home to find out what happened. Early in my lengthy, painful and miraculous journey I told my mother about her great-granddaughter. She embraced her and adored her while dreading what would happen if her friends found out.
A series of disturbing incidents from childhood predestined my journeys back home. A KKK parade in front of my sheriff grandfather’s house; my physician father’s revelations he’d accidentally killed a young black woman in his youth. My mother’s criticisms that I was “just like” my father, and her later scalding remark that because I’d invited a black civil rights worker into our home during my college days I was somehow responsible for a later series of murders of white women allegedly by a black man. My entire childhood was seeded with the idea that black-plus-white equals explosion.
Now, on the ghost woman’s instructions, I thought I was tracking down my father’s macabre story of the black woman he’d killed. I quickly learned it never happen. As a teenager, he’d slapped a girl because she refused to step off the sidewalk; she’d outlived him. He went to his grave believing she’d hit her head and died. I may never know why other than that he grew up in a bloody, guilt-ridden time and place. The track I was on would soon lead directly to my maternal family’s doorstep.
Harris County and Hamilton, its seat, lay short miles up the road from Columbus, our hometown. Seven of my ancestors on both sides served as sheriff, my mother’s father sheriff from 1933 to 1957.
His father was sheriff, and he the deputy, on a frigid January evening in 1912 when a mob of their cousins, uncles and neighbors stormed the jail and snatched a screaming black woman and three black men, including a preacher and a young mulatto man some knew as the sheriff’s cousin. Norman Hadley, the sheriff’s nephew, had been murdered. The woman and three men were suspects. There was no evidence against them.
The maddened mob dragged them across the village square, past the gleaming marble Confederate soldier, past the First Baptist Church to the shadow of the African American Friendship Baptist where, beside the baptismal font, they hanged them on branches of an ancient beech while others in the masked mob fired more than 300 bullets into their bodies.
Norman Hadley was a notorious predator of black women; the preacher they lynched that day had agitated against him in the pulpit. Hadley was pursuing a 14-year-old black woman two decades his junior. Her father also died that day, alongside her boyfriend, the cousin of our family. The woman who was lynched was to be the state’s star witness against the men but she refused to finger innocent men. Perhaps she named Norman’s true killer, a white man. These four people died to protect that man, and to protect my white family’s “honor.”
Over time, every man in the mob would die unnatural deaths, murdered by one another, picked off one by one in other “honor killings,” often claiming self defense.
Though my father wasn’t a murderer I did indeed descend from a murderous tribe, made so not only by racism, slavery and Jim Crow, but by an illegal liquor-making industry and high levels of alcoholism. I also descend from a very racially mixed tribe. The youngest man lynched that night was the great grandson of a slave woman who had at least six children by my mother’s great uncle.
My mother was conceived short weeks after the lynching; as a child she played ‘Hangman,” with sons of some of the mob hoisting her up into the branches of a tree, wrapped in a feed sack. She learned early that the lynched woman’s tongue was shot through with a bullet. She lived her life in fear of public acts and utterances. As valedictorian of her senior class she refused, out of “shyness,” to give the address. As an adult she arranged to have her name removed from the list of potential jurors. Just before dying she dreamt she was sitting on a bench in a courtyard “waiting for the hangman.”
On my father’s side were the county’s largest slave-owners, as well as a well-known family of generals and colonels at the fore of countless Indian massacres. At the time of the lynching my extended paternal family included a judge, a state legislator, commissioners, even the jailer. They controlled the county. Except for an attempt at an early trial to head off mob violence, they did not lift a finger when the masked “Hamilton Avengers” rode into town.
When I first encountered the January 1912 lynching in the blazing headlines of the Atlanta Constitution at the Library of Congress I felt myself in each of them – victims, villains, bystanders. Over time I have come to understand how traumatic historical events helped to shape me and help to shape us all, whether we know it or not.
I’ve learned a lot about southern history, much of it still absent from official history: that blacks died often for the sins of whites and that an uncounted number of the thousands of racial lynchings in the South were about black woman/white man sex.
I believe these old unsolved and un-repented crimes continue to fester and present a barrier to honest relations between black and white, as do the unacknowledged bloodlines. I believe that older generations of both races in the South still carry a lot of mistrust and fear of one another based on these old crimes and rejections. The old paternalistic system, though not so apparent as under slavery and Jim Crow, remains in effect in many places.
I’ve been heartened, however, to discover so many elderly whites who quickly confessed to the great wrong of this lynching and other acts of racial violence, as well as many elderly blacks who fearlessly spoke truths long tucked away.
Today I am helping descendants of my father’s family’s slaves place these missing members on their family tree.
Squarely facing my family’s and my country’s history, bloody as it is, has given me hope and a sense of my own wholeness I never knew possible. Once my book is published I plan to spend most of my time helping others do the same.
Note: Karen Branan’s book, The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth, is now available.