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In the Pines: A Lynching, A Lie, A Reckoning


In the Pines: A Lynching, A Lie, A Reckoning

Family legends can obscure as much truth as they reveal, as Grace Elizabeth Hale learned while investigating the role that her beloved grandfather, Oury Berry, played in a 1947 lynching of a man named Versie Johnson.

As a child, Hale heard stories that cast her grandfather, a small-town Mississippi sheriff, as a real-life Atticus Finch --- a man who dared to stand up to a racist mob intent on murdering a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Years later, as a graduate student studying white supremacy, she began to look into the story of her grandfather’s heroism and quickly discovered a darker tale. A local newspaper account of Johnson’s death differed in key ways from what her mother had told her about the incident. Most critically, she learned that Berry had been one of the officers present when Johnson was fatally shot while allegedly trying to escape custody.

"In this slim but powerful volume, [Hale] shows how one terrible crime in one Southern town was a link in a much larger system of oppression and violence against Black people."

Hale knew that her grandfather’s role in Johnson’s death was more complicated than she’d been told. But it wasn’t until years later that Hale --- a professor who has taught courses on Southern history at the University of Virginia --- dug into her own family’s past. In her new book, IN THE PINES, she turns her eye on her grandfather and the direct role he played in upholding white supremacy. In this slim but powerful volume, she shows how one terrible crime in one Southern town was a link in a much larger system of oppression and violence against Black people.

Through exhaustive research and interviews with people connected to those with memories of Johnson’s murder, Hale manages to piece together a story of what really happened to him and her grandfather’s true role in the crime. Some details are hazy, such as the exact circumstances that led to Johnson’s arrest. (She speculates that he may have been having a consensual affair with the woman he was accused of raping.) But Hale draws a clear and damning picture of how local law enforcement officers were often a willing tool in a concerted effort to keep Black citizens “in their place.” That leads her to the unfortunate but inevitable conclusion that even if her grandfather did not fire the shot that killed Johnson, he deliberately orchestrated his murder.

Hale never minimizes Berry’s role in Johnson’s execution, even as she occasionally interweaves her fond memories of childhood summers spent with her grandparents in Prentiss with her history of the town and surrounding area. But IN THE PINES is a work of history, not a memoir. There’s little insight into how she grappled with the realization of the role her own family played in upholding white supremacy. This is likely because she wisely does not want to center herself in an account of a murdered Black man.

Unfortunately, Versie Johnson remains a cipher in his own story, though through no fault of the author’s. Scant records mean only the barest details of his brief life and violent death are available. And his common last name made tracking down surviving relatives impossible. Yet that absence of historical records is, as Hale points out, evidence in itself of the way Black history often has been erased or ignored.

Nonetheless, IN THE PINES is a compelling (and disturbing) portrait of how virulent racism was baked into the existence of Southern communities like Prentiss. Hale shows how, as outrage over public lynchings grew, the killings went underground, with sheriffs such as Berry stepping in to mete out what was seen as justice, at least in the eyes of white residents. And she draws connections between the idea that white men in the South saw themselves as the natural upholders of the law (whether or not they were law enforcement officers) and the current acceptance of “stand your ground” and open carry laws, as well as the murders of men such as Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. She also encourages white readers to assess the role their ancestors might have played in America’s racist history.

“Most white people throughout US history have lived in systems that enabled them to deny the common humanity of people they did not think about as white,” Hale writes in the book’s epilogue. “All too few have resisted. Too few, today, seek to reckon with this past.”

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on November 22, 2023

In the Pines: A Lynching, A Lie, A Reckoning
by Grace Elizabeth Hale

  • Publication Date: November 7, 2023
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316564745
  • ISBN-13: 9780316564748