PUBLISHER’S NOTE: Family Secret

My uncle was murdered in 1932. My brother decided to find out why.

The story transcends family tragedy and brings to light political intrigue, corruption, and racial hatred.

My father’s older brother was an 18-year-old student at the University of Texas when he was shot and killed by a black man in Austin. For most of my life, that’s all I knew. Nobody in our family would talk about the murder—not my father, nor any of my aunts and uncles. They are all dead now, and it looked as if the mystery of their brother’s death would die with them.

But eight years ago, at a family reunion, when my brother and I raised the subject with my father’s oldest cousin, also now deceased, he said, “You know I was in the car that night.” We were dumbfounded. He was an eyewitness.

He proved to be a very reluctant storyteller. All he would say was that he, our uncle, and a few other boys had been out riding when a car pulled up  and a black man pointed a pistol and killed my uncle. He assumed the assailant had  been executed.

As it turned out, he hadn’t been. Charles Johnson no doubt expected to be executed—after all, he was a black man who had killed a white boy in the Jim Crow South. But, in fact, as my brother soon discovered, he was given only a three-year sentence.

The sentence was almost as shocking as the act itself. There was no doubt that Charles Johnson had committed the murder. What would cause an all-white jury to be so lenient? Why did my grandfather tell a relative that “politics” had influenced the verdict?

Another uncle, also now deceased, contributed one more detail that made us even more confused. He remembered being told at the breakfast table one morning that our grandfather had driven to Austin in the middle of the night “to stop a lynching.”

I never knew our grandfather, a cotton landlord and political patron who died in 1943. But from the stories I’d heard, it wasn’t hard to imagine him—all 5-feet-6 of him, with a booming voice—intervening to save a life, even of the man who had killed his son. It turns out he did stop Charles Johnson’s lynching by an Austin mob. But why wouldn’t anyone talk about it?

The more we learned, the more mystified we were. My brother became so intrigued that he decided to investigate. For three years, he  scoured the historical record—rummaging through newspaper archives, searching court records, even interviewing older black residents of East Austin. He found answers neither of us expected.

In his new book, To Defy the Monster, he tells a story that transcends a family tragedy. In the taut language of a murder mystery, he brings to light the racial hatred and political corruption that altered the trial’s foregone conclusion. It is a dramatic window into an era when modern Texas was just beginning, fitfully, to take shape. It is not only a good read; it’s how we got to be who we are today.

 
* To Defy the Monster, by Albert Arthur Allison, is available on Amazon.com and at local bookstores.

Photo: Dan Sellers

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