My Great- Grandfather, Officer JT Branson

On this corner, Christmas Day 1881, a mob assaulted my Great- Grandfather. Read on to find out what happened next.

In March 1892, my maternal Great- Grandfather, Officer JT Branson, a District mounted policeman, dismounted his horse Honest Dave.

Patrolling Good Hope Road in Southeast Washington, JT saw a runaway horse galloping directly at him. His heart likely racing, sheer dread replacing astonishment, he tried to corral the horse. But it turned and kicked JT, cutting his skull.

The blow knocked him unconscious for a month, and for several months, JT’s life hung in the balance, as his wife Serena, and seven children, including his oldest son Taylor, my Grandfather – prayed fervently for his recovery.

Nursed back to health, on September 17, 1892, JT was, in a Washington Evening Star reporter’s felicitous phrase, “back on the Good Hope beat.”

I discovered this story about my Great- Grandfather while researching my family history for my book about my aunts Sisters Serena and Anna Marie Branson DC.

Before conducting this research, I knew my Great- Grandfather regarded himself a “country fiddler,” who wanted my Grandfather to become a violinist. And JT good-naturedly called his son “Pete” after “Pete Tumbledown,” a 19th Century comics’ character known for his clumsiness.

I didn’t know JT’s 25 year career was filled with “stirring police work,” according to The Star.

Stirring understates the danger, violence, and calamity my Great- Grandfather experienced as a policeman. Once trying to stable Honest Dave, several dogs jumped at the horse and spooked it, and Honest Dave threw JT into a fence, cutting his face.

JT, on another occasion, observed a platform being broken down when one of the timbers broke loose, hitting JT in the head, requiring several stitches.

As serious as these accidents and injuries were, my Great- Grandfather faced situations that threatened his life more. The following incident may have been the most dramatic episode in JT’s career.

On Christmas Day 1881, JT, as the National Republican reported, tried to arrest a homeless African American woman, who was drunk and creating a disturbance at 3rd and L Sts. SW. The woman’s brother, a “known rowdy and thief,” led a mob, who threw stones at JT and grabbed at and knocked him down.

JT broke free, and shot his gun. The bullet hit the brother on his right side below his heart as he ran. As JT helped his partner arrest the woman, who bit the partner’s finger, the woman’s wounded brother escaped.

Some now, sensitive to the situation’s volatility and racial dynamics, may suggest the situation could have been diffused. We shouldn’t, however, judge previous generations too harshly because they didn’t share our insights, expectations and standards.

JT acted in self defense, without vengeance or deadly force. Beset as he was, his actions were admirably restrained.

JT was also a devoted father and a devout Catholic. He and Serena were charter members of St. Teresa of Avila parish. He was a member of the Catholic fraternal order the Knights of America, and must have been especially proud when Pete accompanied the church choir on violin.

JT retired in June 1904, and died July 1905. He was 54. I don’t know his death’s cause, but it’s safe to say, JT was worn out.

He likely would have been most pleased to know his son became the Marine Band’s first violinist, and later the 20th leader of the band 1927 -1940. That may be JT’s proudest legacy, but he lives on in other significant ways.

Five generations of Bransons received his great gift of faith. Pete ardently lived his faith, and his daughters’ Serena and Anna Marie’s extraordinary lives of service most dramatically testified to the faith the Bransons inherited.

JT’s intrepidity lived in Serena’s advocacy before legislators for justice for poor persons, his determination in my mom Ellen, who didn’t give up on the people she loved and his exhausting self-sacrifice in Anna Marie’s service to Bolivia’s indigenous poor.

Although I can’t measure up to my forebears, I try to follow their lead. I’ve lived among and worked with good people, who, confronting poverty, racism, and violence, have nonetheless welcomed me and encouraged me to be intrepid and determined pursuing justice.

I’m grateful I’ve recovered some of my Great-Grandfather’s history, which may have been otherwise lost. Having rescued JT’s history, I want his descendants, especially his newest one – my Grand- Niece Mary Claire – to know it.

I hope some day Mary Claire tells her kids about JT’s courage protecting and serving the city where she was born and his love of God and family.

As they lean forward and incline their ears, they’ll know something of the blood that courses through and the spirit that lives within them.


Murder Victim Families Can Change President on Death Penalty

Journey of Hope Founders Sam Sheppard, George White, Bill Pelke, SueZann Bosler and Marietta Jaeger with Sister Helen Prejean CSJ (center front.)

Journey of Hope Founders Sam Sheppard, George White, Bill Pelke, SueZann Bosler and Marietta Jaeger with Sister Helen Prejean CSJ (center front).

President Obama, according to his former law professor, Harvard’s Charles Ogletree Jr., is close to opposing the death penalty. I’ve worked to abolish capital punishment for 31 years and would welcome his support.

Obama should advocate for the end of the federal death penalty and offer hope for possible reprieves to the 62 persons awaiting executions in federal prisons. The President’s advocacy for abolition would furthermore send a powerful message to the 31 states, which still have the death penalty: it’s days are numbered.

Obama has held the death penalty should be reserved for the worst offenders, but concerns about racial bias in capital punishment’s application may prompt the President to change his position.

I hope the fact persons who kill white persons are three to six more times more likely to receive death sentences compels Obama to conclude, like former Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, he “will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”

If, however, the President still needs persuasion to change his position on capital punishment, perhaps listening to the Journey of Hope members’ stories will convince Obama to support abolition.

I serve on the Journey of Hope’s board. Begun in 1993, and led by murder victim family members, this national organization conducts educational tours against the death penalty.

Beginning with a World Day Against the Death Penalty Conference in Dallas, the Journey will conduct a tour in Texas October 9 -25. These tours emphasize love, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation to break the cycle of vengeance, death, and violence prevalent in our society. Journey members embraced their messages of hope through experiencing a family member’s murder.

After 15-year-old African American Paula Cooper was sentenced to death for stabbing his beloved grandmother Ruth Pelke 33 times to death in May 1985, Bill Pelke, the Journey’s President, thought the death penalty was justified.

However, the white crane operator from Indiana, while sitting atop his crane on morning in November 1986, was brought to tears, recalling his Nana preached Jesus’ message of forgiveness to everyone she met.

Her example converted Pelke to become part of an international movement that spared Cooper’s life in 1989, because she was a juvenile at the murder’s time.

Emotion almost overcame Pelke when he re-told his story at the annual Fast and Vigil against the death penalty outside the Supreme Court in July. It was first time he spoke publicly about Cooper’s recent suicide, a few days after the anniversary of Ruth’s murder.

Although tragic death has cycled painfully full for him, Pelke still believes “love and compassion for all of humanity is the answer.”

Also speaking that night, SueZann Bosler, faced unique challenges learning to forgive as Pelke has.

On December 22, 1986, Bosler was 24 and happy. She and her dad the Reverend Billy Bosler planned to travel to Indiana to meet her first niece and his first granddaughter. That day, she wanted to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.

As she got ready in her bedroom at the Church of the Brethren Parsonage in Opa-Locka, Florida, where her father was the pastor, Bosler heard strange moans from the living room.

When Bosler investigated, she discovered a man stabbing her dad. Bosler went to help her dad, and the man stabbed her in the head.

High on drugs, James Bernard Campbell stabbed Rev. Bosler 24 times to death, and Bosler 5 times. She only survived because she played dead, and several surgeries repaired her brain injuries.

As a preacher’s kid, Bosler had been taught forgiveness was central to her faith, and she publicly forgave Campbell, while privately conceiving ways to hurt him.

Five and half years after the murder at a second sentencing hearing for Campbell, Bosler finally understood the depth of her forgiveness when she said, “James Bernard Campbell, I forgive you.”

Her new understanding liberated Bosler. And despite a Judge’s threat to cite her for contempt for objecting to the death penalty, the white hairdresser fought to save the life of the African American man who assaulted her and killed her dad.

June 13, 1997 Bosler considers her day of victory because that day a jury voted to spare Campbell’s life.

As Bosler told her story that July night, her throat caught when she said it upset her when others implied her support for Campbell meant she didn’t love her dad or cherish his memory.

She worked to end capital punishment to honor her dad, who opposed the death penalty, and whose favorite hymn was Let There Be Peace on Earth.

Bosler, Pelke and other Journey members re-live the worst experiences of their lives to show us the way to peace. Their heroic testimonies, I hope will convince the President to urge others to embrace the peace that comes from abolition.