Jan. 22, 1912, three men and a woman were lynched in
Hamilton, Ga.. The four, all African-American, were
taken from jail cells where they were awaiting trial for
allegedly having killed a local bachelor. They were
marched through the night to a tree by Friendship
Baptist Church and killed. It was well after dark, but
the sounds of the mob, the gunfire and the screams of
the victims woke children in nearby houses.
later, Karen Branan spoke with these children. They’d
grown up, lived their lives and grown old, carrying
their memories of that night with them. Branan, a
journalist, had grown up in nearby Columbus and had
heard whispers of the lynching. She was seeking the
truth behind a story that was nearly out of living
first interviews were with the old folks, the ones I
call the ‘Ancient Mariners’ in the book," she
says in a phone interview from her home in D.C.
was expecting very little when I went down there to talk
thought they would deny the lynching had ever happened,
like her own mother did. Or that they would be afraid to
talk or simply too old to recall with any clarity.
Instead, they recounted that night as if they had been
sitting on their porches, waiting for someone to come
along and ask them what happened the night.
of them batted an eye," Branan says. "They
just told me this story."
Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets,
and my Search for the Truth" is the culmination of
Branan’s 21 years of research. Branan, who has written
for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other
newspapers, approached the story as a reporter, going
through letters and diaries as well as interviewing
people who remembered that night. She realized she had
family on both sides of the Hamilton lynching: a great
grandfather who was the complicit sheriff, numerous
relations who hid behind masks and participated in the
killing and one mixed-race cousin who among those hanged
from a tree and shot full of bullets.
felt the story had to be told — even if it went
against her family and her upbringing.
many white Southern women write about the misdeeds and
the sins of their ancestors," Branan says. "It’s
bred into us. It’s in our DNA not to do it. I had to
find the story, and then I had to find the
wasn’t shy with what she found. As the descendant of
several small-town sheriffs and the member of a family
whose ethnically diverse branches twine through both
town and country in Harris County, Ga., even old-timers
she’d never met knew of her or at least of her family.
Some of them were descended from her great-great
grandfather’s slaves — or from slave-owners’
"second families" with women they owned.
of them told me some pretty rough stuff about my sheriff
grandfather," says Branan. She thinks her age, 74,
helped her gain people’s trust, and also prevented her
from really caring what people would think: So long as a
story is true, she says, she’s not afraid to tell it.
were some areas that were more difficult than
others," to get people to talk about Branan says.
"The African-Americans, by and large, talked freely
of the sexual aspect to this lynching and to other forms
of Jim Crow life in Harris County. The white people were
more hesitant about that."
much violence and repression, Branan learned, stemmed
from fears at that time of interracial sex or
miscegenation, as it was called. In everyday Harris
County, it was pure taboo. One black man remembered a
white grandfather who would not acknowledge him. The
lynchings were tied to miscegenation. The original
victim, a white man related to the sheriff, had been
found shot on the porch of a black woman. And while the
man’s actual killer made a deathbed confession in the
1930s, people at the time thought his death was caused
by other African Americans trying to protect the woman.
Some also feared that two of the lynching victims
Loduska "Dusky" Crutchfield and Burrell
Hardaway, would have revealed the bachelor’s
even, this remains a hush-hush topic.
are people, including relatives in Harris County, who
probably would burn me at the stake if they could get
away with it," Branan says. "I was told by the
daughter of an older cousin who lives in Harris County
that they would be very unhappy if the ancestors were
told her the book has errors. Harris asked them to point
out the mistakes. So far, only one minor error has come
for the major aspects of "The Family Tree,"
Branan has complete confidence — and she feels it’s
part of an essential conversation, even 104 years after
the lynching. A memorial to its victims, which was to be
held last month at Hamilton United Methodist Church, was
moved to the Harris County Public Library after angry
parishioners complained. In this, in her research, and
in keeping up with national news, Branan has become
increasingly aware of how racially unequal the U.S.
continues to be.
in the health care system, it’s in the educational
system. I can’t think of a system where there is
equality," Branan says. "This business with
cops killing black people for no good reason — lately
it seems it’s for no good reason. It’s become
apparent to all that black lives really do not matter to
white people as much as white lives do. We have a very
long way to go."