What's Missing in The Family Tree

February 4, 2016

Yesterday on Georgia Public Radio’s “On Second Thought,” Celeste Headlee asked me how I could be certain I had the true story, given most records of the day were written by white people. I responded that it was records by white people which forced me to face the hard fact my sheriff great grandfather turned his back on the four people who were lynched, leaving them prey to a mob he knew would murder them.  But Headlee was right, in a larger sense, when she suggested that historical stories of African Americans are always lacking hard evidence due to the fact that official history was being written by the white rulers.   Had I more time I’d have talked about the many oral histories I recorded from African Americans, as well as reports in black newspapers and magazines and NAACP and other African American archives I relied upon, and how helpful those were in producing a more balanced account of the 1912 Hamilton lynching.  Still I am well-aware of that a different and, in a sense, truer book could be written by a descendant of one of the lynching victims. I longed to find such a person while writing The Family Tree and have not given up meeting him or her even now -- someone to whom the African American side of the story was passed down, along with human details of the lives of Dusky, Gene, John, and Burrell, which I was largely unable to uncover.  Stories of my cousin Norman Hadley and his fellow white revelers at the “negro frolics” they so loved, stories from the African American side would no doubt differ greatly from those told by Norman’s white kin. As I wrote my book, I never forgot there was an entire world of black life into which I had only a tiny peephole. Most important, perhaps, I would like an answer to my question “What happened to Dusky’s, John’s, Eugene’s, and Burrell’s families?”  I know that many fled “as if under a spell or a high fever,” in the words of Isabel Wilkerson in her wonderful The Warmth of Other Suns.   At the memorial service in Hamilton to honor the victims on Jan. 22, several African American residents came forward to tell me of people they thought might be descendants, so the search goes forward. Stay tuned.

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© 2016 by Karen Branan