Investigative reporter Karen Branan has spent her entire career solving mysteries. She never expected to find the mystery of a lifetime in her own family tree. But while recording her ninety-year-old grandmother’s oral history, Branan learned about a lynching that her great-grandfather sanctioned in 1912. Further research showed that one of the victims, a black man, also shared her ancestry.
Branan’s book, The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth documents her startling discovery, her tireless search for answers and the life-changing results of her research.
“I experienced an odd sense that I had known all these people,” Branan writes in the book’s prologue, “the murderers, the silent ones, the murdered ones, the powerless ones. I felt myself there with each man, woman and child snared in that net and I hungered for every detail of their lives. Who were they?”
Like many people hungry for this knowledge, Branan turned to Ancestry. She used the site to locate the descendants of her ancestors’ slaves, access government documents, and connect with other family members interested in genealogy. Online census records helped her determine how close the lynch mob lived to its victims. Other Ancestry trees provided valuable insights into distant family relationships.
“Many mob family members’ trees included clippings, photos and other useful details,” Branan says. “I was tiptoeing around in other people’s trees…only to be amazed at how upfront many were about the criminal background of their forefathers.”
Branan also used AncestryDNA to connect with several distant relatives, including one young, racially-mixed woman whose grandfather’s DNA matched hers. “He was determined to be a third or fourth cousin,” Branan says, “which means one of his enslaved great-grandmothers was impregnated by one of my enslaver ancestors.”
The experience made Branan stronger and more compassionate: “It put me more in touch with man’s collective capacity for evil. Made me, an anti-racist woman long living outside the South, aware of strains of racism still living within myself. It thrust me deep into myself to face hard truths and out into the world to work against racism. It made me almost constantly aware of what a ‘white’ (and distorted) view of the world I was imprinted with from childhood, and how difficult is the effort to reorient. I am only beginning to desegregate my life.”
For those doing similar family research, Branan has a few tips. Go where it’s the hardest, but don’t stay too long at any one time. Stay close to a higher power. Don’t be afraid to ask rude questions—you’ll regret it if you don’t. She also encourages all slave owners’ descendants to make their data available on websites that encourage matches, such as OurBlackAncestry.com.
“We are affected by our hidden histories,” she says, “both as individuals and as a culture. We do ourselves and our country good by bringing out this information. I feel more whole than I ever did as a result of discovering and revealing all these secrets. I wanted to answer some personal questions, face up to the ghosts that had so long haunted me, and do something that would help heal the wounds of our nation’s racial history.”
For more information about The Family Tree and a free how-to article on “Breaching the Divide Between Genealogy & Race,” visit Karen Branan’s website at http://karenbranan.com/.