When Investigative Reporting Meets Genealogy
I interviewed author Karen Branan for an Ancestry.com blog post last month.
Branan’s book, The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets and My Search for the Truth, documents her investigation into dark family secrets.
I asked Branan when she first became interested in family history.
“When I was very young,” she replied, “I asked my mother where we came from. She said, ‘England, I guess.’ Then, ‘Don’t ask so many questions.’ I think my curiosity began then.”
In the book, Branan describes the early stories that sparked her investigation: her grandmother’s memories of a lynching, her father’s alcoholism, rumors of a murder.
“I wasn’t interested in genealogy per se so much as solving mysteries,” Branan explained. “I’m an investigative reporter by trade. The only family genealogist I ever knew, Aunt Welda, seemed more interest in making a false case for a presumed aristocracy than getting at the truth.”
Branan’s mother initially discredited her grandmother’s memories:
“You can’t believe some things she says,” she warned me as I left. “She embroiders, you know.” I could not know then that eleven years later, I’d embark on a full-scale excavation of this family history, and my mother, who learned early to revere her sheriff patriarchs, would continue the embroidery of memory.
I asked Branan how her relatives reacted to the stories she uncovered.
“Most of my family has been very supportive and appreciative of the work I did,” she said, “though troubled and shocked, of course, by what they have learned. A few of the older ones felt I “denigrated” the ancestors and “stirred up race trouble” with the book, but far fewer than I’d imagined. Some of those I felt would be most upset because they shared names with ‘bad guys’ in the book were most laudatory.”