[NOTE: Both during my teaching career and since I retired from the classroom, I have been fascinated by the history of the Civil Rights Movement. I decided early on that, if my students were to understand the accomplishments of the Movement, they first needed to grasp the history and power of the “legal” racial discrimination that undergirded the Jim Crow South. I‘ve already reviewed several books on life in the Jim Crow South for this blog. This post compares and contrasts three of them. Click on the author’s name below for the full review of each book.
Karen Branan, The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth (2016).
Joseph Madison Beck, My Father & Atticus Finch: A Lawyer’s Fight for Justice in 1930s Alabama (2016).
Kristen Green, Something Must Be Done About Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle (2015). ]
* * * * *
Karen Branan graduated from the University of Georgia in 1962, during a tumultuous period when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were trying to desegregate the school; Branan supported their efforts. For almost fifty years, Branan has worked in journalism, contributing to newspapers, magazines, and television.
The inspiration for Branan’s book, about a 1912 lynching in the small Georgia town of Hamilton, in Harris County, came when she asked her grandmother about her “most unforgettable memory.” The old woman replied, “The hanging. They hanged a woman and some men right downtown in Hamilton when I was young.”
Joseph Madison Beck graduated from Emory University in 1962 and subsequently earned an M.A. at George Washington University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. Beck became an intellectual property attorney in Atlanta and a member of the law faculty at Emory. He has written an account of his father Foster Beck’s doomed effort to ensure that a black man, Charles White, received fair treatment in a small Alabama town after being accused of raping a white woman in 1938.
Kristen Green, grew up in Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. She graduated from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and received a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Like Karen Branan, Green became a journalist, and her career took her to San Diego, Boston, and Richmond, Virginia. Green, who was born in 1973, focused her research on the quality of education available to students in Prince Edward County, Virginia, between 1959 and 1964, when county officials closed the public schools.
During Green’s grandparents’ generation, officials in Prince Edward, including her grandfather, influenced by Virginia political boss Harry F. Byrd’s call for “massive resistance” in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s epochal Brown decision (1954), chose to shutter the county’s segregated public schools. To ensure educational continuity for their children, however, these white leaders established a private school, Prince Edward Academy, one of the first “segregation academies.” The academy was tuition-free for the first year after it opened, but thereafter students were expected to pay tuition. Green’s parents had graduated from Prince Edward Academy (PEA), and her mother later worked there as a guidance counselor. When Green and her siblings were ready for school, their parents enrolled them at PEA with no real discussion, and, as she grew older, Green began to wonder about that.
* * * * *
The Politics of Jim Crow
Karen Branan’s great-grandfather, Sheriff Buddy Hadley, was warned that standing in the way of the “Hamilton [Ga.] Avengers,” organizers of the lynching, could harm his political career. Consequently, the sheriff was conveniently “busy” in nearby Columbus, Georgia, when the “Avengers” struck. Two decades after the Hamilton lynching, as pressure grew on Congress to enact an anti-lynching bill, President Franklin Roosevelt, well aware of the importance of white southern Democrats to his governing “New Deal Coalition,” refused to support the legislation.
The involvement of Joseph Beck’s father Foster in the Charles White case was the direct result of a political decision by a local judge, who drafted attorney Beck to represent White so that the American Civil Liberties Union would not be attracted to the case. And, when White refused to plead guilty and accept life imprisonment (instead of a death sentence) for a crime he claimed he did not commit, the color of his skin, the nature of the crime, and the era in which it occurred doomed him to execution, despite Foster Beck’s efforts.
In Green’s case, Senator Byrd’s state political machine and his call for “massive resistance” to integration lit the fuse to racial tension in Farmville and Prince Edward County. On the national level, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower seemed uninterested in what was happening there, and the administration of Democratic President John F. Kennedy talked tough while keeping in mind the strength of southern whites in the national Democratic Party, just as FDR had three decades earlier on the anti-lynching measure.
* * * * *
Sources and Voices
Branan, Beck, and Green grounded their research in similar primary sources—newspapers and public records—and Branan and Green were able to conduct oral history interviews as well.
Karen Branan relied on the memory of a group she called the “Ancient Mariners,” very elderly people of both races whose insights occasionally come heavily laced with local lore that strains the reader’s credulity. In her research, Kristen Green interviewed former students, black and white, willing to discuss how they had been affected by the school closings; and older people of both races who had lived in Prince Edward County between 1959 and 1964. Because she reconstructs events of a more recent past than either Branan or Beck, Green had a larger group of living witnesses from which to draw and makes good use of them. Because of the importance of their families in the story they tell, both Branan and Green have produced works that are part history and part memoir.
In addition to the record of the White case provided by local newspapers and court documents, Joseph Beck’s sources included conversations with his parents over the years (Joseph was not born until 1943, five years after White’s execution); and his father’s handwritten family history, which unfortunately ended before it could devote much space to the Charles White case. There were holes in the evidence available to Joseph Beck, and he makes scant use of oral history, so he is reduced to “filling in [some of] the blanks” using educated guesses and his imagination.
* * * * *
The Importance of Context
Branan and Green also work hard to place their stories in a broader context, explaining what had occurred before and after the events they cover. Karen Branan treats slavery; Reconstruction; the Myth of the Lost Cause; and the establishment of legal segregation during the Age of Jim Crow before moving on to the Hamilton lynching. She also examines what happened to the “Hamilton Avengers” after the lynching and sketches failed efforts to pass anti-lynching legislation through Congress.
Kristen Green traces the forces that produced Brown and those that led Prince Edward officials to close all public schools in 1959. After telling her story, she examines public and private education in the county since 1964, when the public schools were reopened. (Prince Edward Academy, from which Green graduated, did not admit African American students until 1986, when she was in eighth grade.) During her research, Green was constantly frustrated by the lack of empathy, even fifty years later, shown by local whites, including her own parents and grandparents, about the impact of the school closings on black–and poor white–students, and their families.
Joseph Beck’s focus is so tightly on his father’s work on behalf of Charles White that he does not spend much time establishing the broader historical context. On the other hand, his description of small-town life in the Jim Crow South is more detailed than Branan and Green offer.
* * * * *
Branan, Beck, and Green wrote as racial “liberals” whose college years and subsequent careers took them outside their native region, at least for a time, and exposed them to different cultural values, including those of race, before they returned to the South. Each author considers events in a single southern state during the Age of Jim Crow; features one or more of the author’s family as historical actors; and draws in part on individual and group memories as primary sources.
Each historian investigated the role of one or more family members in a particular incident that revealed something about life in a small community in the Jim Crow South. By the time they had completed their research, all of them were profoundly disillusioned by what they’d found.
Karen Branan had been raised in Hamilton, Georgia, to admire her great-grandfather, Harris County Sheriff Buddy Hadley, who, according to family tradition, had acquitted himself well while trying to avert the lynching. Instead, Branan learned that Hadley had chosen the path of political expediency, absenting himself from town after being warned that if he tried to interfere with the work of the “Hamilton Avengers,” he would be putting his career—and perhaps his life—in jeopardy. Moreover, Branan gradually realized that the picture of idyllic life in Hamilton presented by her parents and grandparents when she was young could not have been true, because her research revealed deep layers of racism, crime, and violence there.
Joseph Beck chose the title My Father & Atticus Finch for his book because he believed that Harper Lee might have modeled the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird on Foster Beck. Lee gently turned this suggestion aside, but Beck evidently had difficulty letting go of his preconception. Then, too, the fact that the “good [white] citizens” of Enterprise, Alabama, ostracized Foster Beck, assaulted him, and vandalized his office led Joseph to abandon a view he’d once shared with his father, that southern whites were not unified in their acceptance of the “depravity” of African Americans.
Kristen Green seems to have sailed blithely through her years at Prince Edward Academy before leaving for college. It was only later, when she worked for a Richmond newspaper, that she returned to the events in Prince Edward between 1959 and 1964. Much that she discovered in the course of her research disabused her of the rosy picture she’d had of her childhood in Farmville, as well as her view of the racial attitudes of her grandparents during the school closings and of her parents later. Green also came to feel strongly that area whites had not—and, to an extent, still do not—understand the permanent harm closing the county’s public schools inflicted on African American and poorer white students in Prince Edward.
* * * * *
As in an earlier post comparing books about growing up white in the Jim Crow South, the volumes assessed here add personal perspectives on that time and place, while also suggesting problems inherent in trying to understand the “mind” of a diverse and complicated region, or even a small part of it, through autobiographies and memoirs. Nevertheless, these books include fascinating pieces to the puzzle that is the tangled history of racism and civil rights in the United States.
* * * * * *
For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: