Author Unearths Grandfather’s ‘White Savior’ Lie, Reveals He Executed Black Man Instead Of Protecting Him From Lynch Mob
Author and historian Grace Elizabeth Hale has spent over a decade grappling with the truth behind an account of her family’s history that centers on the actions of her grandfather, Oury Berry. After spending much of her life believing that Berry had saved a Black man named Versie Johnson from a lynching, Hale learned that the man was allegedly murdered by law enforcement on orders from the patriarch, the LA Times reports.
Hale’s grandfather was celebrated throughout her childhood for defending Johnson’s life after Johnson was accused of raping a pregnant white woman who failed ever to come forward, leading many to believe they were consensual lovers, in 1947. The outlet reports it would take the harrowing events in Charlottesville on Aug. 11, 2017, in which the white supremacist-led “Unite the Right” rally ended in the death of Heather Heyer, to push Hale to tear down the lies and confront the horrors enacted by a member of her own family.
“I realized the story couldn’t have actually been true the way it was described to me. But at that point, I didn’t really want to know. I had grown up with a story of my grandfather’s heroism. And I thought my not wanting to know was symptomatic of a lot of white Americans. I wanted to make the point that this erasure of history is foundational to why racism and white supremacy [persist.]”
She poured her findings into a book, In the Pines: A Lynching, a Lie, a Reckoning.
“The thing that was most difficult to me was discovering the story — which I didn’t know until I started this research — that the sheriff before [Berry] stopped a lynching multiple times,” she explained.
“That was just heartbreaking because it showed that it could be done.”
Hale hopes to use her grandfather’s story to help illustrate an even darker truth in American history, one that highlights the connection between law enforcement and vigilante behavior often carried out by white men, according to the book.
“When there’s an understanding of citizenship as limited to a certain group of people, whatever they do is somehow justified. We saw that with Ahmaud Arbery and with January 6th. Most Americans don’t think about how different levels of the government — local, state, federal — are at cross-purposes with each other, and that these various levels often turn the other way or even encourage vigilante violence,” the author expressed.
Hale revealed that she wanted to honor Johnson’s life.
“There’s nothing that I can do about these actions and his death, but I could bring him to life on the page to whatever degree I could and acknowledge his life,” she explained.
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