OKLAHOMA CITY — When he was a child, Dr. Alan Hollingsworth had quite the story to share with classmates on the playground: "My grandfather was killed by the Ku Klux Klan."
Like a lot of children, he didn't know all of the details of the juicy family lore. It was just something passed down from his mother and her mother before her.
But now the Oklahoma City physician and author has published a book about the murder, and he says a famous Fargoan plays a prominent role.
On the evening of Dec. 17, 1923, Hollingsworth's maternal grandfather, Albert Berch, was shot and killed in the lobby of the hotel he owned and operated in Marlow, Okla. At the time in Oklahoma and throughout much of the United States, the popularity of the KKK was at an all-time high, with an estimated 5 million members nationwide.
In his new book, "Killing Albert Berch," Hollingsworth describes Marlow as a "sundown town" where signs at the edge of town read, "Negro, do not let the sun go down on you in this town."
But Berch, who was new to town, had set out to challenge bigotry by hiring a black man, Robert Johnigan, as a porter in the hotel. Some residents of Marlow, many Klan members, were outraged that Berch would blatantly violate the unwritten law by allowing a black man to work and live at the hotel.
After receiving repeated threats from residents, Johnigan opted to quit. But before taking the first train out of town, he walked into the hotel to offer Berch his resignation. Hollingsworth says just moments after Berch told Johnigan "I'm indeed sorry to lose you," a gang of young men burst through the door, shooting and killing Berch and fatally wounding Johnigan.
Hollingsworth's mother, Almarian, who was named after her father, narrowly missed the spray of bullets. Just shy of her second birthday, she would never really know her father.
"Our mother spent much of her life embroiled in the 'why' of it all," says Hollingsworth. "She always wanted to write about it, but ended up writing a fictionalized version of the story because so many people involved in the murder were still living."
Following Almarian's death at the age of 88, Hollingsworth discovered two scrapbooks full of clippings about the murder - one at the local museum and the other in the attic.
"I flipped them open and I thought 'this is unbelievable!,'" Hollingsworth says. "I was so overwhelmed. There was more to it than I thought, and of course, I was interested in tying up the loose ends of the story."
Hollingsworth says part of the mystery surrounding his grandfather's murder involves a question: Why would Albert Berch endanger his life and his business to make a point about racial equality? Hollingsworth says the answer might just lie with Albert's great aunt, Helen deLendrecie, of Fargo.
"Helen was a force to be reckoned with," says Hollingsworth. "As I started researching, I found her story to be fascinating."
According to the North Dakota State University Archives, deLendrecie was the wife of prominent department store retailer O.J. deLendrecie. (Long since closed, the store's name "deLendrecie's" still appears on the outside of its former location, now the Block Six Building in downtown Fargo).
But Helen was a successful woman in her own right, founding the Northwestern College of Osteopathy in Fargo, fighting for women's suffrage and leading the Civic Improvement League. What her resume doesn't mention is she also helped raise her sister's grandson, Albert Berch, from the age of 6 to 12. Hollingsworth says it's not quite clear how Albert, born in Pasadena, Calif., ended up with his wealthy Great Aunt Helen in Fargo. But it's clear she had an impact.
"She was both mother and father to him for a time," he says. "They were together a relatively short period of time, but it had a powerful effect on him. He hadn't experienced any kind of leadership like that in his life."
Albert's mother had died when he was young, and Hollingsworth describes Albert's father as "a weak and troubled man." Because of that, Hollingsworth believes Helen instead told the young boy about his heroic grandfather Jesse Berch, who was married to Helen's sister.
Jesse Berch was a member of the Union army's Abolition Regiment who risked his life helping slaves escape to the North via the underground railroad.
"Given Aunt Helen's intensity in everything she did, it is easy to imagine her working to instill Jesse's act of heroism in little Albert while they ate Sunday dinner at her home," Hollingsworth writes. "Although, I am taking license here, the odds are strong that Aunt Helen immortalized her brother-in-law (Jesse) in his one great deed."
Albert eventually ran away from Fargo at the age of 12. He got into trouble with the law in Kansas for stealing money from a pool hall.
But by the time he married and moved to Marlow, he had cleaned up his act, and Hollingsworth theorizes that Albert decided to use the childhood story Helen told him about his heroic grandfather as inspiration toward his own redemption.
He would not be helping a slave find freedom, but bucking society by employing a black man in an unwelcome town - an act that would have made Aunt Helen proud.
"A single act, redemption, purpose, legacy: all of these can be dangerous words," Hollingsworth says.
Hollingsworth says it's also possible that Helen had been corresponding to her great-nephew in Oklahoma, telling him stories of North Dakota's own troubles with the Ku Klux Klan.
"Albert might have seen an opportunity for redemption in the eyes of Aunt Helen, not to mention his own and those of society," Hollingsworth says.
Hollingsworth says he might never know all the reasons why his grandfather did what he did and paid the ultimate price. Because of the book, he's had the opportunity to meet some of Johnigan's descendants, and he feels some of the questions have been answered.
He says the book has sold well in Oklahoma, but remains relatively unknown in North Dakota, which is ironic given the influential Fargo woman at the heart of it all.
For more information about the book, including how and where to purchase it, visit killingalbertberch.com.