Review by Booklist Review
University of Virginia history professor Hale mines her family's personal history to examine race relations in Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi, from the late nineteenth century through the 1960s. She relays the story of her much-loved grandfather, Oury Berry, who served as sheriff for several years in mid-century Jim Crow Mississippi. In 1947, under his watch, a Black man, Versie Johnson, accused of raping a white woman, was killed while, the story goes, trying to escape. But Hale does not believe this part of the story. In the absence of much primary evidence, Hale speculates that Johnson was lynched and that her white grandfather allowed it to happen. Tracing the history of the area, Hale attempts to recount the stories of Johnson and his family but encounters a woeful lack of documents, indicative of the contempt white officials had for Black people, their history, their land, and their rights. This is an important story to tell and, enriched by the urgency of national and personal reckoning, Hale capably traces the roots of white supremacy.
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Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
"This is the story of a lynching and a lie," writes historian Hale (Cool Town) in her riveting investigation of a family legend. During summers spent with her grandparents in Prentiss, Miss., Hale grew up on heroic tales of her grandfather, the town sheriff, including the time he prevented the lynching of a Black man in 1947. Years later this story inspired Hale to research lynchings, including the incident in Prentiss. It was then that she discovered the horrifying truth: instead of saving Versie Johnson, a young Black man, her grandfather murdered him. Accused of raping a white woman, Johnson was held in the local jail and threatened by an angry white mob. The official story would later report that the sheriff and two highway patrolmen then took Johnson to the site of the crime, where he was shot when he "attempted to escape." Hale's years of research reveal that Johnson was actually executed. She explains that this type of "underground lynching," which "local officials arranged, participated in, or helped cover up," had become commonplace after President Truman's 1946 Civil Rights Commission cracked down on public lynchings. Hale's narrative is both deeply personal and steeped in the history of the rural Deep South. It's a harrowing look at white supremacist violence and the lies that allowed it to flourish. (Nov.)
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Review by Library Journal Review
In 1947, Versie Johnson, a Black man, was lynched in the town of Prentiss, MS. In this deeply personal tale, Hale (history, Univ. of Virginia; Cool Town) uncovers the truth about the role Sheriff Oury Berry, her grandfather, played in Johnson's murder. Growing up, Hale had been told that her grandfather prevented a white mob from abducting a Black man accused of raping a pregnant white woman. The next day, Berry, his deputies, and a group of onlookers took Johnson to the alleged scene of the crime. Hale had been told that Johnson tried to escape, so the officers shot and killed him. Years later, Hale questioned the story and her grandfather's role. She discovered that Berry, far from being a passive observer, likely participated in lynching Johnson. Effectively using period newspapers, census records, and oral histories, Hale expertly re-creates (to the extent possible) the lives of Johnson and Prentiss's Black residents. VERDICT This book about a lynching shows how whites maintained white supremacy as they resisted desegregation and the expansion of Black voting rights. Recommended for those interested in civil rights and Southern history.--Chad E. Statler
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Review by Kirkus Book Review
A painful tale of "a lynching and a lie." Hale is a University of Virginia professor of history and American studies and author of Making Whiteness and Cool Town. Her grandfather, Oury Berry, was "a great bear of a man I called Pa" and a white man who, as sheriff of Mississippi's Jefferson Davis County in 1947, carried out the extrajudicial killing of a Black man, Versie Johnson, accused of the rape of a white woman. The lie is the family legend that Berry held off a lynch mob at the jail and had nothing to do with the murder. It is also the lie of white supremacy that sustained Jim Crow in the majority-Black county. Hale undertakes the exposure of the lie to do her part in "dismantling" white supremacy and to "lay the groundwork for repair, for acknowledgement and apology [and] also for reparations." She also strives "to place Versie Johnson himself at the center of this particular historical tale." In this way, the account that unfolds is a study in historiography as Hale parses both Black and white media and census for what scraps of truth about Black life in Mississippi she can find. The historical neglect of Black stories combines with the efforts of mid-20th-century white record-keepers to conceal lynching, and thereby suppress anti-lynching campaigns, to make this a tale of inference and speculation; words such as possibly and likely abound, underscoring the many gaps Hale struggles to understand. The frequent repetition of another phrase, my grandfather, however, simultaneously undermines the author's attempts to center Johnson even as it makes clear her determination to accept her family's implication in white supremacy. Still, Hale's thorough focus on what locals still call Jeff Davis County ensures that readers emerge with an appreciation of the variations in Black experiences of Jim Crow. Some one-third of the county's eligible Black population was registered to vote in 1954, for instance, and many were landowners. A worthwhile addition to the literature on lynching. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.