A true story of heroines, horror and honesty

This column originally was published by ECM Publications.

A true story of heroines, horror and honesty

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Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Like many people, Karen Branan asked her grandmother, “What was your most unforgettable memory?” But the answer stunned Branan: “The hanging.” This reply led to more than 20 years of research. “G’mamma’s” response also produced what is perhaps the single most powerful, poignant book I’ve read in many, many years.

Branan learned through her research that her family was involved on both sides of a 1912 lynching of four innocent African-Americans in Georgia. One of her relatives was the sheriff, who chose to leave town rather than defend the victims. Another of her relatives was one of the people who was lynched.

Karen Branan, author of “The Family Tree." (Photo by Joe Nathan)

Karen Branan, author of “The Family Tree.” (Photo by Joe Nathan)

I strongly recommend “The Family Tree” for its searing writing, astonishing history and deep insights into some of today’s headlines. More information is here: http://bit.ly/1QInHUK.

Though she has written professionally for almost 50 years, this is the first time Branan studied her family. Magazines such as Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, Life, Mother Jones, Parents, and Learning have published her, along with newspapers in Minnesota, Indiana and Georgia. Her work also has appeared on PBS, CBS, ABC, CBC, BBC and CNN. (Full disclosure: She and I worked together on articles about 30 years ago.)

Before starting research for this book, Branan had no idea what she would learn. She roamed backwoods, rural parts of Georgia, interviewing countless people, reading old newspapers and studying archives.

First, she discovered her family has both black and white ancestors.

Second, she discovered in the late 1890s and early 1900s a level of violence – both white on white and white on black – that was far greater than she had realized or that many textbooks present.

Third, among many Southern white women, she found a “code of silence.” As she wrote, “I have chosen to break the ancient, ironclad rule that women must keep the family secrets.” As she mentioned during an interview, this includes protecting male relatives who were sexual predators.

She also learned about the heroines in her family, both black and white. For example, she describes Lula Mobley. She was one of the white women who signed and circulated a petition after the 1912 lynching and other murders. These women told their husbands, brothers and fathers that the violence must stop or the women would leave. This “incredibly brave” action produced a “dramatic drop” in violence in their county.

Branan praises another relative she discovered: Anna Julia Cooper, an African-American speaker and author. Branan cites Cooper’s book, “A View From the South,” published in 1892. It insisted that Americans acknowledge unprovoked attacks on African-American women. Branan describes this book as “a previously unheard of public attack on white supremacists by a black woman.”

In an interview with me, Branan emphasized: “I have no interest in promoting guilt. Guilt keeps us apart. “

Branan’s goal is “to promote honesty about ourselves and others.” She believes: “This is the first time a white Southern woman has revealed the crimes of her family. This speaks to the power of the taboo – the silencing of women.”

She also wants to encourage a deep commitment and informed action to promote equal opportunity.

“I want children of all races from the poorest neighborhoods to have educational opportunities that the wealthiest have,” she explained.

Branan readily acknowledges that there are villains, heroes and heroines in each race. But recent headlines – about, for example, whether the Confederate flag should still fly over public buildings, the unjustified 2013 videotaped Chicago police killing of an African American or a large achievement gap in Minnesota – show we are not yet where we should be.

Branan helped plan a 100-year memorial event, in 2012, to the victims of the lynching her book describes. But that memorial had to be moved from a Georgia church to a local library because, Branan explained to me, “Some people were not comfortable.”

In her book, Branan concludes, “We have yet to honestly face our history … or truly embrace African-Americans as full-fledged citizens and members of our human family.” This stirring book will help move us forward.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, is a former director and now senior fellow at the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

One Response to Joe Nathan column: A true story of heroines, horror and honesty

  1. Tom says:

    Thank you joe.
    We need more people to take the time to recognize excellence.