Killing Albert Berch by Alan Hollingsworth, review by Shirley Wells
Growing up, the author knew his grandfather's murder by the KKK made a good story for the playground, but he didn't know many other details about the man whose daughter Almarian was only two years old when he died. She had no memory of her father, but like her mother Lula (Berch's wife), she spent a lifetime searching for answers and wondering about the men and the motives behind that fateful day in 1923. It wasn't until after his mother Almarian's death that the author Alan Hollingsworth began to seriously investigate his family's tragic history.
Albert Berch, the grandson of a man who had heroically volunteered to escort a runaway slave girl to the Underground Railroad, had hired Robert Johnigan, a disabled black man, as a porter in the family's hotel in the all-white town of Marlow, Oklahoma. However, Marlow, like so many towns at the time, had an unofficial “Sundown Law”: “Negro, Do Not Let the Sun Go Down on You in This Town” read a sign posted at the city limit. Johnigan's “transgression” which resulted in his brutal beating and death was that his job at the hotel required him to live there. But the fact that Albert Berch was also murdered, a 30-year-old man whose life had finally started to come together after a rocky start, raised questions, even at the time. Did he die trying to protect his employee from a KKK mob? Or was the murder somehow connected to Albert's rich and powerful family in Fargo, North Dakota? Was this actually an assassination with an evil mastermind behind the murders--as Hollingsworth's grandmother Lula believed?
Hollingsworth's earlier fiction, Flatbellies and University Boulevard, both incorporate autobiographical elements of his childhood and young adulthood in Oklahoma. Killing Albert Berch, as a nonfiction work, explores his family—and the country's—history without romanticizing or covering up any of the unpleasant facts. His four years of research is well-documented, and Holllingsworth is to be commended for not being afraid to admit when he has been unable to solve the mystery as completely or as satisfactorily as he would like. Having arrived at the scene of the crime 90 years late, however, Hollingsworth has successfully pieced together his grandfather's life story, including his whereabouts from the ages of six to his late twenties when he surfaces in Marlow, only to face an untimely death.
Readers of Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann will find Killing Albert Berch to be another true-crime story of racial violence that illuminates the history of our neighboring state to the south, uncovering the complicated and fascinating, albeit horrifying, evidence of man's inhumanity to man.
Dr. Alan Hollingsworth will be at Watermark Books on Saturday, February 17 at 3:00 p.m.