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.”
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.