Karen Branan, Pulitzer Prize nominee, University of Georgia Henry W. Grady College of Journalism alumna and veteran journalist spoke about her book, "The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, A Legacy of Secrets and My Search for the Truth" at the Athens-Clarke County Library Wednesday night.
The novel follows her journey of investigating her great-grandfather’s connection of lynching four innocent African Americans on Jan. 22, 1912. During her investigation, she would later find out her family was not only the culprit of the crime, but also the victim as the youngest African American man to be murdered that night was 21 years old, Norman Hadley, a distant cousin.
As a child, Branan always knew she wanted to write. She dabbled in fiction but ultimately became an investigative reporter.
“I became an investigative reporter looking at everyone else’s family stories or government stories but not my own," Branan said. "When I came to that fork in the road that I knew I had to [write about my family history], I was terrified."
Branan added this is because she was afraid she'd hurt her family, be disowned or get "the story wrong." In the end, Branan said the result of writing her story has actually been success.
In addition to writing about her family history and the crimes committed in the early 20th century Branan spoke about her experience at UGA during desegregation in 1961.
Monday, Jan. 9 marked the 56th anniversary of desegregation since Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter stepped foot on UGA's campus. The same year, Karen Branan, then a sophomore and president of Kappa Alpha Theta offered to walk Hunter to and from classes to avoid the chaos of media, protesters, and students in disagreement of desegregation.
“Everything was kinda just beginning. I was here when Georgia was desegregated,” Branan said. “I’m not quite sure how this came about, but two of my sorority sisters and I went to the door where Charlayne was staying to offer our services as bodyguards...not quite sure if we used that word, but we walked with her from classes at the journalism school.”
She describes in her book about the chaos of walking Hunter to and from class.
“We were confronted by Ku Klux Klansmen, who were joined by Kappa Alpha fraternity boys I knew well, shouting epithets, flashing switchblades and throwing beer cans,” Branan wrote.
After threats from the Ku Klux Klan, Branan and her two Theta sorority sisters stopped assisting Hunter despite the persisting chaos from the media and disapproval of desegregation.
“One of the Theta alumni...called and said ‘The Klan has threatened to burn a cross in the front of the Theta house if you keep continuing this’...so we stopped," Branan said. I decided to leave [the University of Georgia]. I just knew I didn’t wanna stay there anymore. I graduated a year early and married a guy I didn’t really love."
Branan described how the chaos kept building through the first few months of desegregation at the university, mostly caused by the media.
“The sad thing...one of the things I will never forget was the reporters from everywhere, from all over the country, and a lot of them were egging on the crowds," Branan said. "They were trying to amp it up. It was almost like early reality television.”
Branan’s theory to the tension behind racism today is the “fear of knowing” of the past, especially concerning the lack of not necessarily African American education, but more broadly American history today.
“It’s just that fear of knowing, however, that continues to keep blacks and whites divided,” Branan wrote.
Although she does not believe racism is obsolete, Branan does believe it’s not nearly as prevalent as the desegregation era. She explained part of the move toward equality is because of the increase of black history education, but there is still far more to be achieved in the American education system.
After leaving Athens, Branan kept advocating for racial equality. In 1983, she decided to begin interviewing family about the 1912 incident, beginning her investigation of her family history. This month she published "The Family Tree" revealing the over century-old story of the lynching of four innocent African Americans in Harris County, Georgia.