How Two Versions of a Family Story Sparked a Writer’s Quest for Truth
Grace Elizabeth Hale Explores Racial Violence and Individual and Collective Complicity in the American South
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
―James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
I was in college and home for a visit when my mom first shared a tale straight out of To Kill a Mockingbird. We were in the kitchen in our house in suburban Atlanta, and our conversation turned to my grandfather, who had died a few years earlier. All these decades later, I still remember how the afternoon light made the red counters glow as she told me a story that I had never heard before but would never after that day forget.
The events my mom described occurred during her childhood, when her father, Oury Berry, was serving his first term as sheriff of rural Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi. One summer day, someone their family knew found a pregnant and injured white woman walking along a country road in the heat and gave her a ride into Prentiss, the county seat. At the courthouse, the woman reported that early that same morning, her husband had left their house—which was located on a nearby farm—to work in town. After he was gone, a Black man had come to the door and asked for a drink of water. When she returned with a glass, he attacked her, dragged her into the woods, and raped her.
My grandfather and his deputies, my mother told me, used this information to find the man whom the injured woman had accused. By evening, a crowd had gathered outside my grandfather’s office in the courthouse. Carrying his pistol, my grandfather walked outside to speak to the armed and sweating men. “I’ve known most of you all my life, and I sure am going to hate to have to shoot you,” he said, just like Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch, “but no one is taking a man out of my jail.”It was the difference between the newspaper’s account and my mom’s story that shocked me.
Willing to uphold the law even against the people who voted him into office, my grandfather prevented a lynching, my mother told me. He was a hero.
The tragedy, as my mother described it, happened the next morning, after her father went home to get some sleep. In his absence, his deputies and a highway patrolman took the alleged rapist to the scene of the crime, the woods on the edge of a farm just outside Prentiss, so he could explain what happened. There, the Black man attempted to escape, grabbing the patrolman’s improperly holstered gun. The officers had no alternative but to shoot.
My grandfather was upset at the patrolman’s negligence, according to my mom. But he also believed that the accused man had chosen to die this way rather than be lynched or executed in Mississippi’s mobile electric chair. The way she remembered it, her father the sheriff understood what happened as the man’s decision.
A few years later, in graduate school, I learned another version of this story.
Growing up, I had loved my grandfather deeply, but my mom’s story had made me proud of him as well. It had also inspired me to research lynching. As I was finishing my dissertation, I went to visit my grandmother in Prentiss. It would be the last time I saw her in the hundred-year-old house at the corner of Second Street and Pearl where, in my memory, she had always lived. Unlike my grandfather, she did not like to talk about the past, so I spent a day at the office of the Prentiss Headlight reading bound volumes of old editions of the newspaper to try to find out more about what my mom had told me. I wanted to see what the local newspaper reported about my grandfather’s act of bravery in preventing a lynching.
Many Americans have a limited and narrow understanding of lynchings as hangings conducted by vigilantes. Schooled by my research in the writings of Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who pioneered the study of this violence in the 1890s, as well as by my studies of investigative reports on these killings compiled by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), I knew that lynchings took a variety of forms: not just hanging but also burning, shooting, torture, and other kinds of violence. According to Wells, lynchings were crimes committed by communities rather than individuals. In the early twentieth century, sociologist James Elbert Cutler agreed: “Popular justification” was the essential characteristic of the practice, he wrote. The Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, passed by the House in early 1922 but defeated in the Senate by a filibuster, extended this understanding.
By the 1930s, as increasing numbers of white southerners turned against the practice, anti-lynching activists fought over how to expand the definition to take in acts of lethal vigilante violence not sanctioned by broad community approval. By 1940, three characteristics were usually required for anti-lynching activists to label an act of violence a lynching: the victim had to die, three or in some cases two or more people had to participate in the murder, and the killers had to operate under the pretext of delivering justice or upholding tradition. This definition would become crucial to the alternate version of my mom’s story that I would learn at the newspaper office.
Reading the Prentiss Headlight, I learned details that my mom had not remembered: August 1, 1947, the date of the shooting; the Lipsey farm, the scene of the alleged crime; and Versie Johnson, the name of the man who was killed.
But it was the difference between the newspaper’s account and my mom’s story that shocked me. Thanks to my research, I also had learned how to interpret descriptions of racial violence in white southern newspapers and how to spot the stories that white southerners used to hide the truth. As I skimmed the articles in those old Headlights, I found one of these narratives right there on the brittle, brown page.It was clear that neither my mother nor the Headlight had described what really happened.
According to the front-page story in the August 7, 1947, edition, although there had been a crowd in front of the jail, no Mockingbird-type standoff had occurred. Instead, the reporter wrote, Versie Johnson “told the sheriff he wanted to return to the scene of the crime to talk to him about what had happened.” In the paper’s account, my grandfather was not only present, but he was in charge. With the aid of two highway patrolmen, Spencer Puckett and Andy Hopkins (rather than as my mom had described, one state officer plus several sheriff ’s deputies), he took Johnson out to those woods on the edge of the Lipsey farm. There, the three white men claimed, Johnson confessed to the crime and showed them exactly where the rape had occurred. And there, according to the paper, Johnson tried to escape: “As Patrolman Puckett stooped to make an investigation, the negro grabbed him around the waist and threw him to the ground and had a hold on his pistol when the officers fired upon the negro.” Three shots rang out, “two in the chest and one in the neck,” and Johnson fell dead.
If Versie Johnson had blocked Puckett’s access to his gun, the shooters must have been the other two officers: Berry and Hopkins. If my beloved grandfather Oury Berry did not kill Johnson, he had certainly tried.
Yet the Prentiss Headlight story was also confusing. Sitting at a small table beside the big plate glass window at the newspaper office, I struggled desperately to make sense of the words. The paper called the crowd gathered at the jail “large but orderly,” which begged the question of why it was necessary to quote my grandfather Sheriff Berry insisting that “at no time was the situation out of control.” The Headlight article also constructed an impossibly compressed timeline. Somehow, the journalist alleged, a long list of actions had taken place between nine in the morning and sometime the same afternoon: the rape, the injured pregnant woman’s walk into town in the heat to locate her husband, the couple’s trip together to the courthouse to speak to my grandfather, the manhunt to find Johnson, some unexplained process in which the woman confirmed her attacker’s identity, Johnson’s jailing, his decision to ask the sheriff to take him back to the Lipsey farm, the highway patrolmen coming to Prentiss to help, and the drive back out to the scene of the crime.
What worried me the most, however, was the newspaper’s claim that Johnson, a Black man accused of raping a white woman in prime lynching territory, had asked to be taken out of the jail, through that crowd, and out into the countryside.
The Headlight’s account of Versie Johnson’s death upended what I thought I knew about my grandfather and left me with a feeling of cold horror. But it was clear that neither my mother nor the Headlight had described what really happened to Versie Johnson.
On shaking legs I walked the block and a half from the newspaper office back to my grandmother’s house. I showed her the photocopy of the Headlight article, repeated my mom’s version of the story, and asked her what she knew.
My grandmother said she did not remember anything about Johnson’s killing.
Even then, I understood that her answer was a lie.
Over the next few years, I turned my dissertation into a prizewinning book about the history of southern segregation, lynching, and white supremacy and took a job as a professor at the University of Virginia. I taught southern history, even as I ran away from my own family’s past. But I never forgot that Prentiss Headlight article.
My reluctance to dig into my mom’s cherished story, and the things that I discovered when I finally did, taught me a great deal: about my grandparents, about the world that produced them, and about the deep and still often unacknowledged history of white supremacy in America—a legacy with which, as my own family shows, we are only just beginning to engage.
Excerpted from In the Pines: A Lynching, a Lie, a Reckoning by Grace Elizabeth Hale. Copyright © 2023. Available from Little, Brown and Company, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.