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The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth


The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth

Karen Branan brings us a rich history with THE FAMILY TREE. It begins with a simple question from a middle-aged journalist granddaughter to her 90-year-old grandmother in 1984: “What is your most unforgettable memory?” Her grandmother replies, without a pause, “the hanging.” This was the moment that catalyzed Branan’s investigations into her own family history. THE FAMILY TREE is the result of the years of research, inquiry and humility that followed --- within which Branan discovered she had relatives on both “sides of the tree.”

On January 22, 1912, three black men and one black woman --- Johnie Moore, Eugene Harrington, Burrell Hardaway and Dusky Crutchfield --- were lynched for a crime they did not commit. The lynching was aggressively brutal, as most crimes borne out of hate and especially bigotry are; the bodies were not only roughly hanged from the tree, but also shot hundreds upon hundreds of times by the lynch mob. They were murdered for the killing of white moonshiner Norman Hadley, notably the sheriff’s nephew. Norman was killed ostensibly for attempting assault on a black woman, found shot in the head on her doorstep.

Upon her research, Branan discovered that her beloved great-grandfather Buddie Hadley, who, for the most part, was comparatively mild toward black people, allowed the lynching, even though he, too, knew they were innocent. Seeking justice for his lost nephew and unwilling to compromise his newly appointed sherriffhood, he permitted this atrocity. Branan found that she likely shared an ancestry with the bloodlines of the lynched, due to intermarriage, rape and what was then known as “miscegenation.” When Dusky Crutchfield was asked, right before her murder, to reveal the true killer, she knew that justice in this country was a sham. She knew that black people were paying the price for white anxiety, white fears about purity and the maintenance of their own supremacy. She refused to puppet herself for them. “Pull the rope, white man,” she spoke, and then the mob brutalized her.

The most glaring question a reviewer should have upon reading this book is “why?” Why the emphasis on humanizing “both sides”? Branan works hard throughout the narrative to emphasize balance, to explore the idea that she and her white forebears “weren’t the bad guys after all.” She pushes that the post-Reconstruction-era South was hard on everyone, including the white men who lost the ability to capitalize on the industry of slavery. Throughout, she pushes that the murderers and the murdered were on either sides of the same coin --- or separate branches of her own family tree, which has grown into her. Branan calls attention to black-on-white murder, and the relative infrequency of outright (documented) lynchings.

"Branan’s work here is important, and I hope that other white Americans descended from white supremacy take her lead in humbly investigating their pasts and striving to change the present. We have a lot of work left to do."

This approach is understandable, but in many ways unpalatable and counterproductive. Let’s get this absolutely, unmistakably clear: there is no comparison. When writing a book that deals with an ancestry that spans both the oppressed and the oppressors, balance should not be the mission. History has already favored and continues to favor white supremacy. Equality doesn’t look like giving the same cookie to a bleeding, brutalized man and the man who makes a living off of his blood.

Throughout the text, Branan evidences the extent of her privilege in taking on this narrative. She shares tales of slaves who loved and were loyal to their masters. She insists that Buddie Hadley’s negligence was incongruent with much of the rest of his character. When I ask “why?” I am truly asking “who for?” and “to what end?” because ultimately this book was written for white people. This is not in and of itself a bad thing because we do need books asking white people to consider racism, though we more desperately need to continue to elevate narratives written with experiential authority when it comes to racism and antiblackness --- but it’s written for white people in a faintly frustrating and permissive way. Branan actually refers to “us whites” and references that she herself was “barely aware” of racism in America, even though she grew up in Georgia in the ’40s and ’50s. Even as a journalist, she did not recognize the immediacy of these issues. This is white privilege. THE FAMILY TREE makes it abundantly clear that the sickening brutality of racism and antiblackness in America exists within our lifetime. It is a privilege not to recognize it until you seek it out; not everyone has the opportunity to live unscathed by oppression and its violence.

In the afterword, Branan discusses how she can learn from both sides of her family, how she can see the good, the bad and the humanity now that she has more of the “whole picture.” What is the purpose of writing a book that humanizes slave owners and lynchers? The only valid purpose in such an endeavor is to emphasize that this evil exists within us. This hatred gets passed down through generations as well. Lynch mobs were not made up of faceless cruel monsters. The violent hatred of white supremacy manifests in our parents, our siblings and ourselves. It is our responsibility as the privileged to recognize this, reject it and focus attention on the narratives of the oppressed.

To an extent, I feel confident that Branan understands this. She emphasizes in the very last pages that we must recognize the lasting effects of racism today, calling for “biracial conversations.” She calls for us to listen to each other and work together. I recognize that her milder approach to racial injustice comes from her personal ties. And yet, the privilege of a milder approach is not one afforded to those who walk the pathways of this country in fear of terrorism simply because of the associations attached to the color of their skin. They have personal ties as well, and those ties are stained with blood, not guilt. Granting clemency and understanding to racist whites --- that is the system and the norm. There have been no reparations for slavery. There have been no reparations for the beatings, whippings, rapes or lynchings. We must recognize this. We must recognize that white America has never, not once, on a large or cultural scale, addressed what slavery has done to our psyche. We cannot have generation after generation of slaveowners, lynchers and those who permitted or profitted from the system, and then transition to a place of “equality” without humbly addressing the indelible marks such supremacy has left on us.

This is not a time of peace for race in America. Just as Branan is only a lifetime away from living through the horrors of her grandparents, the descendants of those supremacists, those KKK members and those who believe in righteous ethnic cleansing live among us today. That rhetoric is alive and well today, and it is why we no longer have Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland and hundreds of thousands more who have been extrajudicially executed by the enablers of a system that neither protects them equally under the law nor grants any justice as a consequence of their murders.

Johnie Moore, Eugene Harrington, Burrell Hardaway and Dusky Crutchfield were killed for a crime they did not commit on the grounds that they looked like what America conceives to be criminals. The brutal mob murder was permitted and exacerbated by the justice system. That same mentality is why racists who actively speak casually about killing black people, for whom they have many slurs, are still in positions of power and legal authority today. Neither hate crime nor the system that perpetuates it died with Dusky Crutchfield or Buddie Hadley. Nor does the responsibility end with Karen Branan.

Other reviewers have written lines like “If you think Faulkner made it up” or “what turns mild-mannered churchgoing family men into cold blooded killers?” and I beseech you to recognize the deeply problematic rhetoric that resonates behind those words. We cannot distance ourselves from what is still happening or use the lens of historical examination to draw focus away from the modern-day manifestations of antiblackness. The only purpose in recognizing the humanity of racists is to recognize the racism within ourselves. We must recognize that we, too, are descended from white supremacy. This, ultimately, is the most important lesson to take from Branan’s journey. Do not seek to blame monsters. Seek out the monstrosity reinforced within your loved ones and within yourself.

Branan’s work here is important, and I hope that other white Americans descended from white supremacy take her lead in humbly investigating their pasts and striving to change the present. We have a lot of work left to do.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on January 22, 2016

The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth
by Karen Branan

  • Publication Date: February 28, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press
  • ISBN-10: 1476717192
  • ISBN-13: 9781476717197