Award-winning historian and professor Grace Elizabeth Hale grew up to believe her grandfather spared the life of a Black prisoner in the 1940s. However, her new book uncovers the truth about her “Pa” and how he was responsible for the Black man’s death.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Hale has taught and written several books highlighting racism in the South and white supremacy for decades. In her new book, In the Pines: A Lynching, a Lie, a Reckoning, she revealed that what she thought was a heroic story involving her grandfather and a Black prisoner turned out to be very different than what she was told as a child. 

Hale grew up in Georgia but spent most of her summers with her grandparents in Jefferson Davis County in Mississippi. As a child, she was told her grandfather, Oury Berry, the town’s sheriff, had delivered a powerful speech similar to Atticus Finch’s character in To Kill a Mockingbird. His goal was to prevent the townsfolk from dragging the Black man, Versie Johnson, to his death, per the Times. 

Johnson was accused of raping a pregnant white woman, but she had never come forward to clear the man’s name. Instead, the Black man was killed during an escape attempt, and Hale’s beloved grandfather had given law enforcement permission to murder Johnson.

As she got older, Hale realized the original story that she was told about her grandfather and Johnson wasn’t true. It wasn’t until grad school that she started digging through her family history to find out the truth about the 1947 lynching.

“I realized the story couldn’t have actually been true the way it was described to me,” she said in an interview with the Times. “But at that point I didn’t really want to know.”

Hale now lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, the same town where groups of white supremacists had marched with tiki torches and loaded guns, vowing to save their country. She said the incident allowed her to revisit racism in this country from an entirely different angle — one that would make others reflect on their own family history. 

“All history is somebody’s family story,” Hale said. “Frankly, that’s what gave me the courage to revisit this situation, because it was hard to do. 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 persists.”

During her research, Hale learned more about Johnson’s life before his death. She wanted her readers to know who he was and made every effort to bring him to life in the book.

“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 said.

While Hale wishes she could have uncovered the truth sooner, she said lack of technology and access to genealogical records as well as her being a single mother with a busy schedule would have significantly impacted her research.

Today, her family, particularly her mother, wishes not to revisit the past after Hale discovered the truth about her grandfather.

“Her choice was to not reexamine the past. This story is not something she accepts. It’s really hard for all of my family members and they didn’t get to decide. It was certainly something that they would’ve rather me not do. I just want to leave that at that,” she said.