As the author of a book documenting the 1912 lynching of four black people in Hamilton, located just 30 miles north of Columbus, Karen Branan returned to the city in January to memorialize the victims.
Branan, the great-granddaughter of the white sheriff who she believes opted to make a trip to Columbus at the time of the lynchings, held the event at the Harris County Library. Before speaking to an audience of about 52 people, she decorated a table with four white roses and four white candles, each symbolizing the lives of the woman and three men whose deaths were never publicly mourned.
On Wednesday, the author of “The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth,” will return to the Chattahoochee Valley for two events. She will appear 3 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble Bookstore at Columbus Park North, 5555 Whittlesey Blvd.; and then 7 p.m. at the Carson McCullers Center, 1519 Stark Ave. The McCullers event is co-sponsored by the center in partnership with the Department of History and Geography at Columbus State University.
Branan, a native of Columbus, is a 1959 graduate of Columbus High School. She is currently a journalist living in Washington, D.C. She learned of the lynchings in 1984 when she asked her 90-year-old grandmother to share her most unforgettable memory. Her grandmother said, “The hanging,” which set Branan on a two-decade quest for the truth about her family history.
In the book, Branan describes Hamilton of 1912 as a town rife with moonshining, interracial liaisons and rampant violence. The lynching occurred Jan. 22, 1912, just days after her great-grandfather, Buddie Hadley, was elected sheriff. Hadley’s womanizing nephew, Norman, had been found dead on Loduska Crutchfield’s front porch, sparking outrage throughout the town. The mob killed Crutchfield and the three black men in retaliation for Norman Hadley’s death, hanging them from a tree near the baptismal font at Friendship Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation that still exists today in Hamilton. Branan said it was later discovered that the four victims were innocent.
The book has received rave reviews in the literary world. The Georgia Center for the Book wrote: “A gripping story of privilege and power, anger, and atonement, The Family Tree transports readers to a small Southern town steeped in racial tension and bound by powerful family ties. 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.”
Yet, reaction in the town of Hamilton has been mixed. The memorial service that Branan held at the local library on Jan. 22 originally was scheduled for the Hamilton United Methodist Church. But the venue was changed at the last minute due to the objection of some church members, said the Rev. Dan MacMinn, pastor of the congregation.
MacMinn said he initially agreed to have the event at the church because he hoped that it would bring blacks and whites together for a moment of reconciliation. However, he was contacted by both black and white residents who didn’t want to participate, he said, and some people said the book contained some inaccurate information.
Ada Demlow, the Harris County librarian, said she doesn’t live in Hamilton and can’t judge people who have problems with the book. She wanted to hold an event at the library ever since hearing Branan speak at the Carter Center in early January, she said, and the memorial event provided an opportunity to open dialogue within the community.
“When I heard the author speak and read the book for myself, I knew that conversations about this book could widen understanding,” she said. “I know this because it has already done it for me.”
Ransom Farley, a black Hamilton native, recently was elected to the city council. He said he grew up hearing about the woman and three men who were lynched at Friendship Baptist Church, where he is a longtime member. But it’s something that many people are reluctant to talk about.
Farley said he attended the event at the library and believes more than 90 percent of Branan’s book is true.