Columbus native Karen Branan has been a journalist for nearly half a century. Her work has appeared in national magazines, major newspapers and on network and cable TV.
Living in Washington, D.C., she has covered racial issues from as far away as the Rodney King beating in California to as near as the Chattahoochee Judicial Circuit. Then the news that she was about to have a mixed-race granddaughter made her professional work become personal.
"I felt terrified by her impending birth, a strange thing since I'd been doing civil rights work most of my adult life," Branan, 74, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an emailed interview. "I felt haunted, drawn back into some old things. Nightmares. I didn't set out to write a book. I set out to answer some old, nagging questions and to find out what was haunting me."
The result is "The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth," published this month by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc. Branan will speak about her book Friday, starting at 7:15 p.m., in the Harris County Public Library. It will be the 104th anniversary of the hanging.
Motivated to research her family history, Branan, whose paternal great-great-great-grandfather, Gen. Elias Beall, helped plan the city of Columbus, learned about the Jan. 22, 1912, lynching of four blacks -- a woman, a preacher and two farmers, one related to her maternal family.
"The central issue in this lynching was inter-racial sex between white men and black women," she said.
And she learned that the sheriff who was responsible for protecting those victims, Buddie Hadley, was her great-great-grandfather.
"I hope to inspire white people like myself to open their eyes to the harms our ancestors inflicted on black women and the harm that did to ourselves," Branan said. "I talk in the book a bit about how these traumatic events seeped down through the generations. There's a lot of scientific work going on now in this regard.
"Nationally, a lot of white people are pushing through the pain and discomfort that involves and doing their genealogy in a way that is much more honest, much more all-encompassing, discovering their African-American kinfolk, even reaching out to them, as I have done, examining their deeply embedded racism. This, I believe, is the only way our nation is going to heal and move forward beyond the rancor so prevalent today."
Branan, a 1959 graduate of Columbus High School, wants those who were lynched in Hamilton that day -- Dusky Crutchfield, Eugene Harrington, Burrell Hardaway and Johnie Moore -- "to be seen by us white people as human beings who mattered" after paying for the crime of a white man who went free.
Library manager Ada Demlow heard Branan speak about her book Jan. 5 at the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta.
"What I discovered there was an author who in the course working on personal history and memoir stumbled on a story that didn't just move her -- it shook her to the core," Demlow wrote in the announcement of Branan's presentation in Harris County. "And in the writing of her book she seemed to be finding a way to continue a personal healing journey while inviting the rest of us to take the same one."
The Georgia Center for the Book calls Branan's work "a gripping story of privilege and power, anger and atonement. Branan takes us back in time to the Civil War, demonstrating how plantation politics and the Lost Cause movement set the stage for the fiery racial dynamics of the twentieth century, delving into the prevalence of mob rule, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the role of miscegenation in an unceasing cycle of bigotry.
"Through all of this, what emerges is a searing examination of the violence that occurred on that awful day in 1912--the echoes of which still resound today--and the knowledge that it is only through facing our ugliest truths that we can move forward to a place of understanding."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow him on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.
IF YOU GO
What: Columbus native Karen Branan, author of "The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth" speaks about the 1912 hanging of four blacks by a white mob and its implications, followed by a discussion. Branan is the great-granddaughter of the Harris County sheriff who was responsible for protecting the victims.
When: Friday at 7:15 p.m.
Where: Harris County Public Library, 138 N. College St., Hamilton, Ga.
Note: The memorial service for the victims that was scheduled for Friday at Hamilton United Methodist Church has been cancelled.
More info: Call the library at 706-628-4685.