A dogged pursuit takes a journalist into uncomfortable corners of her Southern family’s complicity in a small-town lynching.
Both a deeply personal narrative infused with a charming Southern flavor and a compelling historical journey, this work benefits stylistically from the distance Georgia-born Branan has attained from the protagonists, her relatives. Born in 1941 and raised in Columbus, Georgia, not far from her parents’ relatives in the small town of Hamilton, Branan was properly indoctrinated as a child in segregation and made racist assumptions about the black people she lived among and who worked for her family; these attitudes took decades to unlearn as a journalist committed to civil rights and equal justice. From hints over the years that her family let slip from their carefully “embroider[ed]” memories, Branan gradually put together the facts around a grisly lynching of four blacks—including the first African-American woman to be hanged in Georgia—on Jan. 22, 1912, in Hamilton by a white posse. The murders were especially painful for the author to investigate since they occurred under the watch of the new sheriff, her great-grandfather, and were perpetrated by a group of her ancestors. As the story goes, a moonshining ne’er-do-well, Norman Hadley, had made sexual advances toward a teenage black girl of the community, prompting his murder by her protectors and thus underscoring the role of miscegenation in the twisted edifice of Southern racist thinking. In this well-written, disturbing narrative, Branan reaches back to explore numerous similar lynchings and the complicity of the entire community. She also explores the tireless work of journalists like Ida B. Wells and activist Anna Julia Cooper, who resolutely exposed the lynchings, and the members of the Women’s Missionary Society, among other women’s groups, who finally restrained the murderous hands of their menfolk.
A ghastly, dizzying descent into the coldblooded clannishness of the Southern racist mindset.