Hairstons, The: An American Family in Black and White


The Hairstons are extraordinary families, both black and white, who share a complex and compelling history that embodies the legacy of slavery and shows how that legacy has passed into our own time. The black family's story traces the triumphant rise of a remarkable people - the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of slaves - who took their rightful place in mainstream America. They are people who tilled the land, built schools and churches, fought for civil rights, and shed their blood in war. In ...
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The Hairstons are extraordinary families, both black and white, who share a complex and compelling history that embodies the legacy of slavery and shows how that legacy has passed into our own time. The black family's story traces the triumphant rise of a remarkable people - the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of slaves - who took their rightful place in mainstream America. They are people who tilled the land, built schools and churches, fought for civil rights, and shed their blood in war. In contrast, it was the fate of the white family, once one of the wealthiest in America, to endure the decline and fall of the Old South. At the heart of their experience lies the story of a lost child. Wiencek's search for the true account of her life peels away layers of lies and myth to reveal a tale the slaveholders and their descendants had kept hidden for almost a century and a half. Surprisingly, it was a tale not of horror, but rather of love and heroism powerful enough to shake the foundation myth of the Old South. The Hairstons ultimately addresses the universal human struggle to come to terms with the past, and offers a parable of redemption, one that may in the end serve as a vital contribution to our nation's attempt to undo the twisted historical legacy of the past.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Covering similar ground as Edward Ball's National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family, Wiencek steps gracefully through the intricate web that links two family trees, one white and one black. Because it's not his own family history he explores, Wiencek doesn't labor under the burden of personal moral accountability that made Ball's book so powerful. He intends his book as a national "parable of redemption"--and he succeeds, admirably, in presenting the Hairstons as a metaphor for the nation while also presenting the specificity of their history, which he learned by traveling through three Southern states in search of interviews and courthouse records. He attempts a balance between the two stories over centuries of ignored heritage and denied kin. At one point, the founding Hairston family owned several plantations and hundreds of slave families over three states. Master Peter Hairston and his former slave Thomas Harston fought on opposite sides in the Civil War, and "the success of one brought the other low." As Wiencek follows the Hairstons from Reconstruction through the civil rights era, he paints a picture of the declining fortunes of the descendants of the slave master and the rise and wisdom of the descendants of the slaves. And yet the name itself is treasured among both family branches, and some of the white descendants can't resist the desire to make contact with the other branch. Commonalities emerge among black and white Hairstons; earnest, if partial, gestures of reconciliation are made. Throughout, Wiencek writes without sentimentality but with great feeling. "I heard history," he writes, "not as a historian would write it but as a novelist would imagine it.... I felt all the moral confusion of a spy." Maps, photographs and extended family trees not seen by PW. (Mar.)
Library Journal
This profile of the Hairstons, a large family of planters and slaves spreading from Virginia and North Carolina to Mississippi, examines the intricate situations forged by interracial relationships and reveals the fate of the family in the crucible of war, emancipation, and the struggle for equality. Journalist Wiencek's conversational narrative, based both on archival research and a series of encounters with family members, highlights the contingent construction of historical accounts while revealing the complex and contradictory beliefs and emotions that characterized these tangled relationships, filled with guilt, anger, and ultimately forgiveness without absolution. The result is a voyage of discovery down the stream of history. Wiencek reminds us that no such story, especially one as compelling as this, can be rendered simply in terms of black and white. Recommended for most libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/98.]--Brooks D. Simpson, Arizona State Univ., Tempe
Kirkus Reviews
A look at the largest slaveholders in the South and black and white families they spawned. Once they ruled over a pre–Civil War kingdom that spanned 45 plantations spread out over four states and included 10,000 slaves. To keep it all intact, they did what European aristocracy did: they married their own. And as one might imagine, this created a huge and maddeningly complex genealogical configuration, hard to decipher, to say the least. Undaunted, Wiencek, hwo has written for Smithsonian and American Heritage magazines, has spent eight years unraveling the mystery of the Hairstons (pronounced Harston), said to be "the largest family in America." What Wiencek has turned up is nothing if not intriguing, including aspects which are worthy of further exploration. But perhaps not wishing to appear sensational nor to feed prurient interests, he has gone in the opposite direction, taken a subdued approach to his subject that often has the effect of heavy sedation. Wiencek says his research points up that the family touched every aspect of American endeavor from Hollywood to Wall Street and from the coal fields of West Virginia to Europe during WWII. And that may be true. But his approach is so very genteel that it's easy to miss key elements, including some that read like something out of William Faulkner. Amid these huge plantations, for example, are unacknowledged children of their masters who become enslaved butlers, servants, and housekeepers, or children who were forced to keep their mother's maiden name to disguise their heritage. Wiencek does not have a dramatic flair for language, making this a very slow read indeed. But those with an interest in the subject will tough out thiseerily fascinating account.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312192778
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/1999
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 361
  • Product dimensions: 6.47 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 1.27 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One



    The mansion at Cooleemee was a commanding presence. Lordly and gleaming, it stood atop a knoll not far from the Yadkin River in North Carolina, at the end of a gravel road that snaked through a pine forest. I emerged from the woods to see the house set on a pedestal of terraced gardens, painted a brilliant white, and guarded by a pair of magnificent trees, a flamboyant live oak and a stately Southern magnolia. I approached it from below, like a supplicant.

    Tall and heavyset, with a great wave of white hair breaking across his head, Judge Peter Wilson Hairston made an imposing figure as he stood in the doorway of Cooleemee Plantation — the very image of the Old South aristocrat. He wore a bathrobe and slippers — he had been, he explained, polishing the silver — but that did not in the least diminish the gravity of his presence. From the doorway boomed a powerful, resonant voice — truly the voice of a judge. The voice was a great gift, an instrument worthy of an actor, the perfect instrument, as I would find, for telling the old stories of the plantation across a candlelit dining table, with tumblers of bourbon within easy reach. He could adjust its tone and volume from gentle to fierce. It could whisper conspiratorially and roar with pleasure. It was also a voice that had sent men to jail. Now it firmly laid down the law, right in the doorway.

    "First things first. My name is spelled Hairston, but it is pronounced Harston. If you can manage that" — now the smile emerged — "we'll get along just fine."

    With this ground rule set down, Judge Hairston led me from the blazing sunshine of a June morning into the cool, echoing dimness of the mansion.

    It was a rare privilege to enter this house. Cooleemee is a time capsule, a relic of the dead and untouchable past that has managed to come into our own time because of its isolation and because of the tenacity of its occupants. Many of the furnishings are those that the judge's grandfather put in place before the Civil War. Time has moved so slowly at this house that when you step across the threshold, you can be forgiven if you don't know what century you are in.

    The graciousness, the beauty of the house, were breathtaking. The stairhall was a large octagon, three stories high. On one side of the hall double doors were flung open onto a view of lush greenery — tall rows of English boxwood, pungently fragrant in the June heat. A magnificent staircase curved along the walls, swirling up to a tower that poked into the sunlight fifty feet above. In the silence a tall-case clock gravely ticked the time. Along the walls hung family portraits, including one that seemed to be of the judge as a much younger man, with jet-black hair and beetling brows. In the dimness it was hard to see at first glance that the clothes were a century off — it was actually a portrait of his grandfather, the Peter Wilson Hairston who built the house. I would later find that there was an uncanny resemblance in the male Hairston line going back five generations.

    On the wall at the foot of the stairs was a portrait of a boy about eight years old wearing a pale blue suit. This was Sammy, the son of the builder. The artist had posed him outdoors with a favorite toy, a large wooden hoop. Tossed to the ground was a blue hat with a black plume, the jaunty adornment worn in battle by the boy's uncle, General Jeb Stuart, the Confederacy's legendary cavalry commander.

    Six doorways opened onto the hall, creating the impression of a stage set for a country-house comedy with drunken, amorous cavaliers rushing about in pursuit of ladies in crinoline. The doors led to a dining room, drawing room, master bedroom, and library, the judge's book-lined sanctum.

    In the master bedroom stood a gigantic four-poster bed (to move it requires six men) that the judge's grandfather had ordered from New York. There were porcelain and mirrors from France, paintings from Germany, a set of silver from England, and furniture made in North Carolina by a free black cabinetmaker who once ran the largest furniture-making operation in the state, with many wealthy planters among his clients. And there were even older North Carolina pieces, a tall chest and table from a plantation owned by the judge's great-great-great-grandfather. The table had been made from a cherry tree cut down in 1791. The judge has the receipt from the woodsman who cut the tree.

    Cooleemee was one of many houses I was visiting in various parts of the country to write a book about old family homes and the people who live in them. As I interviewed the occupants of these venerable places, I heard history not as a historian would write it but as a novelist would imagine it. I became privy to the secret sorrows of these old families, and I learned also about the strange and cruel maneuvers of money. At one time most of these families had been rich. Money moved like the tide — washing in inexorably, lifting everything in a slow and giddy ascent, then just as inexorably receding, slipping from frantic fingers, leaving only wreckage behind.

    A special poignancy suffused the Southern houses. They were the remnants not only of the vanished past but of a vanished society, one that had been destroyed by the Civil War, a war that had left behind what Faulkner called "the deep South dead since 1865 and peopled with garrulous outraged baffled ghosts."

    I visited some people who had inherited nothing but the beautiful shell of their forebears' prosperity. They inhabit huge and breezy houses, built as if for a race of giants, with massive furniture ornate with the optimism of boom times, the drawers stuffed with debts. Ghosts pace the halls at night. They live in twenty-four-hour mockery; yet they stay on, pouring their meager dollars into polish and plaster. The houses embody a precious inheritance — it is the past itself that belongs to these families; it is their legacy, their pride, the floor beneath their feet. It has been given to them because of who they are. And the ghosts that walk hold no terror for them, they are guardian spirits.

    Amidst all the losses these families have endured, they have been able to take comfort from their tangible links to the past. The strength of their heritage has kept these families together. They know history because it was their forebears who enacted it. They know the family tree going back to the far reaches of Ireland and Scotland and England, and they know where all the third cousins are today. They have to know — one of those obscure cousins might turn up in probate court to challenge a will.

    As I sat talking with the descendants of the old planters, I felt all the moral confusion of a spy. I was a Northerner adrift in the heart of the old Confederacy, an honored visitor in stately homes whose legacy I found deeply troubling. America's racial problems had begun here, in the very homes I was planning to write about. It was impossible for me to put that fact out of my mind. Many people, black and white, believe that the key to our racial troubles lies in the past. Some black leaders still talk of the reparations America never paid to the slaves and their descendants for the centuries spent in slavery and the near-slavery of sharecropping.

    I wanted to find an African-American family that was descended from slaves on one of the plantations I was writing about. I wanted to hear their testimony about what the experience and the memory of slavery on that particular plantation had done to their family. Was there, in fact, a centuries-old burden still being carried today? Has the past left them with a hatred of white Americans that will never be expunged? Was there anything in their past which they looked upon with pride? Is it possible for an African-American to feel any connection at all to the past, or is it too dreadful even to contemplate? I worried that even if I succeeded in finding such a slave descendant, it might be impossibly embarrassing to ask the right questions.

    In any case, I couldn't find them. At the Southern houses I visited, the descendants of the slaves had left long ago. Some might very well have been living down the road from the old plantation, but the white owners didn't know it. There was no reason for them to keep track of the blacks, and they certainly had no interest in doing so.

    At one house the only surviving trace of the blacks had been deliberately, though not malevolently, obliterated. There was a burial ground of slaves and free blacks in a pasture by a creek. When the owners rented out their property to another farmer, he told them that he needed that patch of ground too. So the burial markers, iron crosses handmade by the plantation's blacksmiths, were uprooted. Too beautiful to discard, they were stored in the basement of the house — symbols of Christian suffering, iron promises of resurrection-along with a century and a half's worth of odds and ends. The owners meant no disrespect, but certainly no overpowering sense of regard for those particular dead or for their descendants, who might one day come looking for the resting place of their forebears, rose up in their hearts to restrain them. They were poor themselves, they needed to rent out the land, and there was no one around to plead the case of the dead.

The judge ushered me into the library and began to talk about the history of his family. And history poured from him in torrents, as he talked of the family's exploits in the Revolution and the Civil War. The judge's grandfather had fought by the side of Jeb Stuart, his cousin and brother-in-law. He served later with another cousin, General Jubal Early, whose mother was a Hairston. He lost friends and relatives in battle at Manassas, at Williamsburg, and Shiloh. Jeb Stuart himself fell in battle late in the war, hit by a wild shot from the pistol of a federal trooper who had hastily taken aim at Stuart's flamboyant plume.

    The judge showed me his most precious heirloom, which went back to the family's origins in this country. It was a crude wooden trunk, hewn from a single log and fitted with hinges and a lock made of iron. The trunk was covered in deerskin, and the inside was lined with faded, worm-eaten newspapers. The first Hairston to come to America, known in the family as Peter the Immigrant, had brought it with him on the journey from Scotland and Ireland. The trunk had contained women's clothing. The clothes were a link to the Scottish past, a link that held great significance for one member of the family, the judge's great-great-grandmother Ruth. "The day before she died she sent the servants up to the attic at Berry Hill [one of the Hairston plantations in Virginia], the old family place, and told them to bring the chest down and air the clothes inside, because that's what she was going to be buried in. And so she was." She had wardrobes full of the finest clothing, purchased with the wealth of her plantations, yet she wished to go to her grave in the simple clothing of times past, when the Hairstons were warriors in the cause of liberty.

    Peter the Immigrant had come to America a refugee from war. As a young man of about twenty, he had joined the 1715 Rising, a rebellion of the Scots against English rule. The result was a hideous slaughter of the Scottish patriots at the Battle of Preston. Peter fled to Ireland, where he married and had five children. About 1729 he brought his family to America. They had landed in Pennsylvania, but after a few years, they headed south along the Great Wagon Road to Virginia, where they established themselves as tobacco planters and acquired slaves.

    As the judge continued his recitation of the family chronicle, it slowly dawned on me that the beautiful mansion in which I was sitting was a mere outpost and represented but a small fragment of a vast plantation empire, built up over several generations. The Immigrant's children and grandchildren created a network of plantations along the southern border of Virginia, stretching in a broad swath through the counties of Halifax, Pittsylvania, Henry, Franklin, and Patrick. They expanded south into North Carolina, acquiring land in the counties of Stokes, Rockingham, Forsyth, Davie, and Davidson. The Hairstons did not know it when they came here, but by an extraordinary stroke of good fortune they had settled on the best tobacco-growing land in the world, a region of the Virginia-North Carolina Piedmont that would later be called the Bright Belt.

    Their plantation empire grew so large that it almost defies description. In Virginia and North Carolina the Hairstons established ten major plantations, and each of these had numerous satellite plantations that might be worked by a dozen slaves or fewer. When Judge Hairston tried to draw up a comprehensive list of the family's pre-Civil War holdings, he came up with the astounding total of forty-five plantations, large and small, in four states. The judge's great-grandfather Samuel Hairston had his headquarters at Oak Hill plantation outside of Danville. His brother Marshall owned Beaver Creek plantation near Martinsville. Another brother, Robert, lived with his wife, Ruth (who was also his first cousin), at Berry Hill, and in the 1830s he went down to Mississippi with yet another brother, Harden, to establish cotton plantations there with a small army of slaves. Other branches of the family were established on hilltops and along riverbanks in southern Virginia, and the judge reeled off the names of the plantations — Windsor, Chatmoss, Hordsville, Marrowbone, Royal Oak.

    The Hairstons always seemed to have cash in hand when a parcel of land became available. Dour and devoted to acquisition, they lived by the old Scottish maxim "Money is flat and meant to be piled up." Indeed a Richmond newspaper in 1851 ran an article saying that the judge's great-grandfather, Samuel Hairston of Oak Hill, was probably the richest man in Virginia, and perhaps in the United States, the possessor of land and slaves worth $5 million. He was reputedly the largest slaveholder in the South.

    It is impossible to say precisely how many slaves the entire family owned. Judge Hairston consulted over one hundred plantation lists and inventories to compile a roster of the slaves his grandfather had owned. It ran to more than fourteen hundred names, but represented only a small fragment of the family's total holdings. The land and slaveholding records that do exist are misleading and tend to understate the size of their possessions, because it seems that some of the Hairstons were not exactly candid with the tax collector. Still, the judge estimated that the combined branches of his family held ten thousand slaves.

    To keep this huge legacy of land and slaves intact, the Hairstons revived one of the old customs of the European nobility — they married each other. The brothers Samuel, Marshall, and Robert all married cousins, creating a family tree of insane complexity. Samuel and his wife, Agnes, built the mansion at Oak Hill. Their first son was Peter Wilson Hairston, Judge Hairston's grandfather. He combined two branches of the family tree and became heir to the accumulated wealth of five generations. He was to be the culmination of all that had come before, the man they all expected to carry the wealth of slavery through the rest of the century. Then came the Civil War.

    Of the family's great wealth, Cooleemee is one of the few surviving relics. The capital of the family empire, Oak Hill, stood empty for many years, and finally burned.

There are no mementos of the Civil War at Cooleemee, no swords or muskets over the mantel, no tattered flags, no sentimental pictures of Robert E. Lee. The memory of the war was vivid enough without such relics. Judge Hairston remembers the visits of an elderly woman, related to the Hairstons by marriage, who wore black mourning clothes in memory of her brother, who had been killed leading a cavalry charge at Manassas sixty years earlier. The judge's grandmother was, he said, "the most unreconstructed Southerner that ever was." She never let go of her anger at the North. A young girl visiting Cooleemee on the Fourth of July was imprudent enough to show up with a small American flag pinned to her dress. She was stopped at the door by Fanny — "Child, take off that Yankee rag before you put foot in this house." Judge Hairston's father wished simply to put an end to the era. "Dad objected so to the bitterness over the Civil War that when I was growing up, you could not mention it in this house."

    In the last days of the war, a Yankee raiding party approached Cooleemee and may have entered the plantation but did no damage. No one knows exactly why the house survived, but the judge believes that the plantation's manager may have offered the Yankees provisions in exchange for sparing the mansion. What is known is that a slave named John Goolsby risked his life to save the family silver. Goolsby, the plantation coachman, had served throughout the war with Peter Hairston as body servant and horse handler. He loaded the family silver in a wagon and drove sixty miles to Stokes County, dodging Yankee raiders, and buried the silver in the vegetable garden at the Saura Town Plantation. Goolsby lived into his nineties, and Judge Hairston remembers seeing him as a very old man at Saura Town. The silver Goolsby hid from the Yankees, usually kept in a bank, is brought out for family functions at Cooleemee. The judge was polishing it the morning I came to the house.

    I had heard such stories of "the faithful slave" at other plantations. Supposedly such servants begged the Yankees to spare the master, spare the house. They hid the furniture, the mirrors, the silver, and brought it all back when the Yankees had passed. It was hard to believe that people on the brink of freedom would cling to their masters and shun the liberators, but that is what the whites all maintained. Since the slaves and their descendants had gone, no one could say otherwise.

    So I asked the question that had drawn only blank looks at other Southern houses: Did the judge have any idea what happened to the slaves and their descendants? Indeed, he did. Quite a few descendants of Cooleemee slaves were still living in the vicinity. Most of them were named Hairston, but they pronounced the name in their own way. "The whites follow the old Scottish pronunciation," he explained. "I believe that the blacks originally used our pronunciation, but when the Yankee schoolmasters came down here after the war and got their hands on them, they made them say it as it is spelled."

    It suddenly made sense that the judge had insisted, almost as a condition of my entering the house, that I get the Scottish pronunciation of the name right. I thought that this may have been the white family's way of distancing themselves from the blacks who had adopted the name but had given up the odd way of saying it.

    So there were dozens of slave descendants, perhaps more, still living here. What stories would they have to tell? Did they have a sense of their family history as strong as the judge's?

    I was about to ask for the telephone book so that I could get the addresses of black Hairstons and write to them for appointments when the judge surprised me by saying, "I'll call my old friend Squire Hairston and ask him to come over."

    I found it hard to imagine that a prominent judge and landowner could be on such good terms with a black man that the latter, out of pure friendship, would drop whatever he was doing and rush over for a chat with a total stranger. Perhaps Squire Hairston would feel that it was in his interest to answer this sudden summons. I felt uneasy interviewing Squire on these terms — I felt that he was being called in to give a command performance, to regale a visitor with old plantation stories at the behest of the master. Squire might tell me only what he thought Judge Peter would want me to hear. And it occurred to me that the judge's reference to Squire as "my old friend" was window dressing, intended to show an outsider that he could be a man of the people, of the black people to boot.

    Before long, our conversation was interrupted by the sound of voices in the stairhall. The judge's wife, Lucy, ushered Squire Hairston into the library. The judge rose to welcome his guest, and the two men shook hands warmly.

    This meeting was not what I had expected. Here were two men with the closest possible ties to slavery, the grandsons of slave and slaveholder, greeting each other cordially in the library of the old master's mansion. How did this come to pass?

    Of average height but solidly built, Squire was dressed in work clothes, neatly pressed green pants and shirt. Although he was seventy years old, he still worked a few hours a day as a custodian at the Davidson County Community College.

    Squire settled into one of the library's worn leather chairs. The judge excused himself, leaving us to talk in private.

    I started by asking about his family. Squire said his father was born on Cooleemee Plantation in 1886. His father worked all his life as a sharecropper here, and on the side he planted tobacco on two acres of his own land, which he had bought for $20 in the early 1900s. Squire's grandfather, named Franklin, had been born a slave in 1851. Squire had been able to trace back to his great-grandmother Louisa, Franklin's mother, born in 1833. The judge had shown him the plantation ledger that recorded Louisa's birth. But beyond that he could not go. His deeper ancestry might be somewhere in the older plantation ledgers, but no one had been able to trace a family tree among the thousands of names.

    Squire spoke slowly and chose his words carefully. He talked about his lineage but offered few details about anyone's life. He had heard the story of Goolsby hiding the silver and had no reason to doubt it, but he had no direct knowledge that it was true. As I listened to him, I was trying to form a tactful series of questions. From the judge, history had poured out in a flood — like many white Southerners, the judge possessed a rich storehouse of plantation tales to draw upon. Asking the grandson of a slave about whips, chains, and the humiliations of slavery was another matter. But this was my one chance and I took it. I asked Squire what he knew about the old days on the plantation.

    "An old lady used to sit down and talk to us a lot about what they went through."

    "What was her name?"


    "What were some of the stories that she told?"

    "Well, she told how they went out in the fields ... worked hard and everything ..." Squire looked away and, to my surprise, broke into a quiet laugh. "Well — she told a lot of stories." He fell into silence.

    "Nothing you want to tell me?"

    "Well, I've got a lot of memories."

    He would say no more. I imagined that generations of memories were flashing through his mind, memories that might not be the sort of quaint and poignant anecdotes that writers like to collect for books about old houses. Perhaps he did not realize that I was willing to listen to anything he cared to say, that I was not interested in stories that were merely charming. Then it occurred to me that Squire had laughed at the idea that I expected him to explain, in a few minutes, his family's experience during slavery time and afterward.

    Squire Hairston's warm greeting to the judge — indeed, his mere presence in the old master's mansion — seemed to indicate that he had made his peace with Judge Hairston over what had happened in the past, but obviously he was inclined to keep his family's past private. Just before Squire arrived, I had asked the judge about how his grandfather had treated the black Hairstons in slavery. He said I should ask Squire, that he would not presume to speak for them. The tradition in the white family was that they had treated their slaves well, but he acknowledged that the blacks might think differently. Only they could tell me.

    I was reluctant to press the matter with Squire — perhaps he would never talk about such things to a white person — but I made one more try.

    "I guess there are some stories that will never go outside the Hairston family?"

    "Never will ... never will, no."

    That seemed to be the end of it. But as he stood up to signal an end to the interview, he said there would be a reunion of the black Hairstons in a few months, and he invited me to attend. If I wanted to gather stories of the old days at Cooleemee, he said, there would be people at the reunion with ties to the plantation. He would see if anyone would talk with me.

— — —

After Squire left, I went up to the tower. It had a panoramic view — on one side of the house were old barns and stables; on the other, open fields that ran down to the Yadkin River a quarter of a mile away. At its peak just before the Civil War, this plantation had six hundred slaves and forty-two hundred acres. Since then the land and the house had changed hardly at all — so I could actually touch the objects the slaveholder had touched and see the very things he had seen. And I wondered about the mind and soul of such a man. How different was the mind that looked down from this great height through this window and saw a white boy rolling a hoop for fun and a black boy sweating in a cotton field? In 1860 it seemed that the order of things would never change. The order of the world was good and could not be otherwise because Peter Wilson Hairston believed that God Himself had imposed the existing order on the world, and it was not for man to tamper with His design. "Thank Him who placed us here," wrote a Southern poet, "Beneath so kind a sky."

    Before leaving I asked the judge, if he had been his grandfather, would he have freed his slaves?

    "He had so many, it would have been all but impossible to free them, even if he could have hired them right back. The law required that if you set people free, you had to send them out of the state. How would they provide for themselves? And he didn't own the slaves outright — his title was all mixed up with his grandmother and the rest of the family. And of course, slavery was simply the accepted system back then."

    I asked him the question that he had been asked many times before: Did he feel any guilt about his family's past as slaveholders?

    "You can't repeal history!" he thundered.

    And then, in a quieter voice, he said, "I can't go back and unwind it."

As the day of the Hairston reunion grew nearer, I realized how fortunate I was to be invited to it. If a friendly connection actually existed between the white and the black families, it was certainly rare, and it would be a privilege to document it. More valuable still was the chance to interview some of the last surviving people who had actually seen and spoken with slaves. But I also began to have some misgivings. Whatever the blacks told me would end up as a short postscript to the tale of a white slaveholding family — a black stamp of approval, solicited by the white author, on the plantation days. And in my story, as in so many others, black people would be remote figures viewed at a distance as the whites dominated the scene. But as far as I could tell, the history of a black family was largely unrecoverable. The documentation simply did not exist. So I put aside my misgivings and persuaded myself that I was doing some small service to the black family by setting down the memories that did still echo from the past.

    The Hairston family was meeting at a large hotel on the outskirts of Baltimore. Off the lobby at a registration table, two women sat wearing "HAIRSTON CLAN" buttons. A few people milled around, but there was no evidence of a bustling reunion. It seemed that I had come for nothing.

    Squire emerged from an elevator. I had last seen him in his work clothes, but he was dressed now in a gray business suit. He hurried me into the elevator, saying that some people were waiting for me upstairs.

    Gathered in the living room of a suite were about fifteen men, all in business suits, and two women in silk dresses. Unsmiling, they eyed me silently as I came in. Most were middle-aged; a few appeared to be about seventy. Three were in their twenties. I had expected an interview; instead it seemed I had been called before a tribunal.

    Squire introduced me and said a few words about the family background of the people in the room. Verdeen Hairston, a neighbor of Squire's in Petersville, was the great-grandson of a Cooleemee slave. He was a farmer. A tall, powerful man, with a broad face set in a scowl, he did not look happy to see an outsider coming into this family gathering. A speech impediment made his words come out in a strained, basso growl, tending to increase the fierceness of his expression. A woman in her forties with reddish hair and yellow skin, named Ever Lee Hairston, also wore a serious expression and listened to the conversation with great intensity, but she said nothing, and I noticed that she never looked at me. Squire said she had grown up at Cooleemee.

    The president of the clan was Collie Hairston from Camden, New Jersey, where he once served as an assemblyman. Born at Cooleemee, he was about the same age as the judge. His sister Marie was in the room as well. Their parents had been Cooleemee's housekeepers, the last of the black domestics to be part of the everyday life of Cooleemee. Collie's great-grandfather had been John Goolsby, who was the patriarch of six branches of the Hairston family. Collie told me the story I had heard from the judge, about Goolsby hiding the white family's silver in the last days of the Civil War. This seemed to be the agreed-upon plantation-days story that both the whites and blacks told to outsiders. I thought that the white family might have made up the story, but Collie said that he had heard it from Goolsby's son.

    "There were twelve children in my family, all born on that plantation," Collie said. "My mother spent eighty-five years on the plantation. She was born in Stokes County, and when she was six, she moved into Cooleemee. My grandfather drove a mule team for the plantation; he used to take loads up to Virginia."

    Collie's account of his family background was interrupted by the arrival of a short, bald, elderly man who walked with a cane. The room rose to greet him. This was Jester Hairston, the family celebrity. Nearing ninety, he was a regular on the television comedy Amen, in which he played the character of Rolly. Everyone called him "Cousin Jester," but he was introduced to me as "Dr. Hairston," in recognition of his four honorary doctorates in music. He was one of several Hairstons who were well-known. The others were sports figures, but I found Jester especially intriguing because he had had a long career in theater, radio, in Hollywood, and as a performer of Negro spirituals. He had figured prominently in two films I remembered well from my childhood. He had appeared in John Wayne's 1960 movie The Alamo, playing the role of Jethro, the archetypal "faithful slave," who remains by the side of his master, Jim Bowie, despite being granted his freedom and with it the chance to leave the death trap at the Alamo. In one of the final scenes, as a horde of Mexican soldiers closes in on the injured Jim Bowie (played by Richard Widmark), Jethro hurls himself over his former master to take the death blow meant for the white man. Five years earlier, Jester had conducted the chorus for another movie that dealt with slavery — the Howard Hawks film Land of the Pharaohs, an epic of ancient Egypt written partly by William Faulkner, which portrayed a pharaoh's mania for wealth and the labors of an enslaved people in bondage to the master's obsession.

    I had not expected that Jester Hairston would turn up at the reunion, and I was pleased when he was guided to the chair closest to mine and the conversation was turned over to him. He said he had been to Cooleemee and knew the judge.

    "About three years ago I did a concert near Cooleemee, and Peter wrote me and told me he wanted me to stay at his house that night. He came down and got me and brought me up to the plantation, and I spent the night and slept in his bed. And I didn't know it until he told me, `Jester, I was born in this bed.' I didn't feel it was any great honor, but it showed me we were friends."

    I asked him how he felt about staying in that house, given its history.

    "It's a part of my ancestry, and it's a part of me just as much as it's a part of Peter. My folks were there in a different capacity, but that was the way of life in those days. It's the way it came up. Why look at it with hate? If you hated everyone who had us in slavery ... that was the system in those days. I don't know a better man than Peter."

    Dr. Hairston was a raconteur of the same high order as the judge. He launched into a series of stories about meeting Hairstons, white and black, on his travels around the country over the last sixty years. As a young man he had gone out to Hollywood in 1936 with an all-black choir from Harlem to sing in the film Green Pastures, which led to an offer to perform on a radio comedy.

    "After we finished the picture we got a radio program with Irving S. Cobb. Paducah Plantation was the name of Cobb's show. He'd say, `Brother Hairston and the Hall Johnson Choir will perform so and so.' I got a letter from a woman in Long Beach who was thrilled to hear the name Hairston on the radio and wanted to know if she was related to me. I told her to meet me after the show. I saw this tall redhead standing with her husband. I'm sure they thought I was the janitor come to turn up the seats, and she just froze — I put my arms around her and said to her husband, `Can you see the family resemblance?' And he said, `No, Jester, that will have to grow on me.'"

    The room erupted in laughter. They must have heard that story a dozen times, but Jester's polished delivery never failed to get a laugh. He went on to more reminiscences, and I realized that I was truly in the hands of a brilliant performer. He had succeeded in putting me at arm's length. He could entertain an outsider with stories and send him home smiling, without ever revealing an ounce of himself. From reading clip files on Jester Hairston I knew that he had not collected four honorary doctorates and been invited to perform around the world just because he had cracked jokes on Amos `n' Andy and carried a spear in Tarzan movies. He had spent his lifetime collecting, arranging, and performing Negro spirituals. He had said that the Negro spiritual expressed the deep religious faith of the slaves, even though their masters thought they could use religion to keep the slaves docile. He was a profound scholar of the African-American slave experience and had struggled with the ambiguities and contradictions of that history. But he was keeping all that hidden from me. When he saw a white man with a notebook, his guard went up.

    Jester had put everyone at ease, and I was soon filling my notebook with the family's recollections of plantation life. They jogged one another's memories, recalling for each other half-forgotten ancestors. Soon I could not keep up with the outpouring of memory as ghostly generations, white and black, rushed past. They remembered "Marse Peter," the judge's father, who insisted that the blacks address him by that title left over from slavery time, even though he was born ten years after Emancipation. Some knew stories of "old Peter," the judge's grandfather. Eventually they seemed to forget that I was in the room and made no effort to explain to me what they were talking about. I heard them speak of lost relatives in Mississippi; about the distant era before Cooleemee existed, when their forebears lived in "Sorrow Town," or Saura Town, as I knew it; and about some of the other Hairston plantations, Oak Hill, Berry Hill, Beaver Creek, and Chatmoss. Collie and his sister tried to sort out a long and hopelessly complex story about a spat with the judge over who would have the right to bury their parents. All the talk about ancestry, about Sorrow Town and Mississippi, about who would bury whom — it all baffled me, but among themselves they were unfurling the tapestry of their private history, and they could see vividly into a past that was invisible to me. Then Collie turned to me and said suddenly, "Peter will tell you everything. He'll tell you some stories you don't want to hear."

    His sister resumed talking about the plantation, but I was barely listening to her. I was trying to puzzle out what Collie had meant. Something they had just said among themselves had provoked this remark, but I could not fathom what it was. Squire must have been thinking about it too, because he answered my question before I had a chance to ask it. He began indirectly, talking about his ancestry, running through the dates when his ancestors were born, until he had gotten back to slavery time. He recalled a conversation he had had with an old man many years ago, and as he recounted it, he briefly took on the voice of that man, his low drawl shifting up the scale to a melodic singsong. And as he spoke, the atmosphere in the room changed completely. The people in the room recognized the names he was speaking, and they knew what he was leading up to. They realized that he had made a decision. He would not wait for the judge to tell me what I didn't want to hear; he would tell me himself.

    "I have the names of all the slaves," Squire said. "And the names of those who were born as a mulatto." He pronounced the word slowly, so that I wouldn't miss it. "I have the names of all of those who were born half-white. And some of my people were half-white. My foreparents. They were born from the masters by the kitchen women. They would take our mothers and get children just like they wanted to."

    Another man broke in to say, "If you look at us, we are not purebred Africans." He was almost fair-skinned himself. I had noticed as soon as I had walked in the room that the people in it were a spectrum of browns, blacks, and yellows. I had thought the subject was taboo, but this man now spoke of it openly.

    "You have Peter's book?" Jester asked. He was referring to a history of Cooleemee that the judge had written and published himself. A third of the book was taken up with a roster of his grandfather's slaves.

    "The names are in there of the people whose mothers were the slaves and the Hairstons were the fathers. It happened on that plantation. That's what happened on all the plantations."

    "I didn't know that," I said. Of course, I had no way of knowing it; and I would never have known it if they had not told me. So the slave roster that Judge Hairston had compiled for his book contained the names of his own relatives.

    "But you know ..." Squire seemed unsure of what he wanted to say. "Time changes everything.... They would take our mothers." He stopped. "And just like they would take our foreparents and get children just like they wanted, now our black boys can take the white girls and get babies on them. It's just coming back. It all started with the white master on the plantation." He shook his head and said in a loud voice, "Whatever you do, you're going to reap it."

    Verdeen spoke up, and I strained to hear his words. "White people say to me, `God wanted you to be with your own.' And I reply, `It's funny — it took you all two hundred years to learn this.'"

    Jester nodded his head and remarked, "That's what you call `reality.'"

    Verdeen looked at me and said, "You asked us the question, `How do we feel about it?' How do you feel about it?"

    Sadness is what I felt, and shame that I had picked open an old wound. I had been foolish enough to take Squire's meeting with the judge at face value. I knew that the abuse of black women by the slaveholders had happened on plantations, but I looked upon it as part of the remote past. For the people in this room history was not an abstraction, it was personal, and bitter. I felt humbled by the courage of Squire's admission. In my own past there was no equivalent, and I avoided Verdeen's question by saying that I had no right to answer it.

    "My family has been here only since around 1900. You're more American than I am. You go back farther. Your people go back, I don't know, maybe two hundred years or more."

    "Sixteen nineteen," Jester declared. This was a date burned in his memory. "Sixteen hundred and nineteen — when the first boatload of blacks from Africa was brought to Virginia."

    Another man spoke up: "You say we are more American than you. But you are accepted. We didn't come here by choice. We were chained and brought here. We are a long-suffering and a forgiving people. But we are still not totally accepted."

    There was the briefest pause as they reflected on this remark, on the trials that their family had endured that had not been sufficient to make them fully American in the eyes of many, and someone joked, "But we're working on it."

    Laughter spread through the room, and they let the tension go. Collie announced that they had to start their business meeting. He said that if I wanted more information the family would cooperate. I shook hands with Collie and Squire, nodded to the others, and left.

    I had come to ask for their absolution over a history I did not know. I knew only the inside of a house in North Carolina, where I had witnessed what now seemed merely a ritual of courtesy enacted by two elderly men of the South. I had been arrogant enough to assume that an additional hour of chatting with the black Hairstons would be sufficient for me to seal a pact of forgiveness between the races. They knew why I had come. In their view I was an emissary of the judge, and at first they were content to give me what I wanted, but Squire decided it would be wrong. He wanted me to know the truth. He had opened a door to his family's history, and I now felt obliged to go through that door and seek out as much of their history as I could. No sooner had I made this decision than I discovered how large a task lay before me.

    The hotel lobby that had been almost empty earlier in the day was now filled. Buses were arriving from distant parts of the East and the South. Several hundred people crowded the huge space. Their name tags listed hometowns from all over the North and the South — New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Detroit, Baltimore. There were large contingents from Ohio and from rural Virginia and North Carolina, and a few people from the West. As I walked through the lobby, people greeted one another with hugs and kisses, showed off their children, and hailed long-lost cousins. The size of the family astounded me, and I was moved by the strength of family feeling that could draw so many hundreds of people together across great distances. This gathering could not have sprung from nothing. It had to be the culmination of something that began deep in the past. Where were its roots? In slavery? In what came later? What fires had forged the links that held the family together?

    I went from one person to another, asking where they were from and how far back they could trace their roots. I met coal miners, ministers, businesswomen and salesmen, a young surgeon, farmers and mechanics. One man's appliance business was failing; his nephew was applying to MIT. A frail man in a wheelchair, dying of cancer, talked about his grandfather, who had gone off to college in 1900 with fifty cents and a sack of flour, become a minister, and ended up a trustee of the college. He pointed me toward a sprightly woman in her nineties talking with a cluster of gray-haired men. He said they had been her students in a one-room schoolhouse seven decades before. At last the lobby began to empty as people dispersed to prepare for a banquet. The moment was slipping away, and I had been able to gather only fragments of their story.

    I was approached by a courtly gentleman in his sixties whom I recognized from the earlier meeting. His name was Joseph Henry Hairston. He was the light-skinned man who had spoken up about their mixed origins.

    "You're interested in plantations," he said. "So am I." His line of the family was from Chatmoss and Beaver Creek, two of the largest Hairston plantations in Virginia. As we sat in the darkening lobby of the hotel, he talked of his origins. His starting point had been a log cabin in Burnt Chimneys, Virginia, where he was born the first son of younger, illiterate sharecroppers. He remembered his aunt cooking at the fireplace, tugging at a heavy iron bar to swing out the cook pot. He would sit there in front of the fire, and she would tell stories of his forebears, who lay buried in graves behind the cabin. As an adult, Joseph kept going back to that cabin to visit his aunt, in her nineties and widowed. One afternoon he sat down with some paper and she recited from memory the names of his forebears, some of whom had been the slaves of the judge's grandfather. She was barely literate but her memory was prodigious and the roll of begats she recited that afternoon stretched back to people from before the Civil War. Later Joseph checked the names against census records, as much as possible, and found that she had been absolutely accurate. She had passed on to him a map of his family's history. Whenever he went to a reunion, he brought a copy with him, and now he handed it to me.

    By this time people were gathering for the dinner, and Joseph hurried off to join his family. I stood in the lobby outside a vast banquet hall, as last-minute arrivals hurriedly showed their invitations to the doorkeepers and searched for places at the farthest tables. Nearly a thousand people were assembling for the dinner, which would be followed by speeches, awards, and festive music. I could hear Squire's voice welcoming the family as the doors to the banquet hall closed and I was left alone in the lobby.

    I had crossed a line into a region where the past was still felt to be alive and where the ghosts of the past still governed events. Some of their names were written on the sheets of paper that Joseph had given me. On the train ride back I studied those names, and when I reached home, I unfolded a map of the South and plotted a route into the past.

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Table of Contents

Family Trees
Map: The Hairston Plantations
A Note on Names

Part 1: The Land of the Pharaohs
1. Cooleemee Plantation
2. "Damn Your Souls, Make Tobacco"
3. Beaver Creek
4. The Lives of the Hairston Slaves
5. A Brief Illumination
6. The Education of a Slave Master
7. The Lost Child
8. A Mingling of Roots

Part 2: "I Tremble for My Country"
9. "No Man Can Hinder Me"
10. "Till the Last Man"
11. The Scroll of Names

Part 3: "Our Blood is in This Soil"
12. A Gathering in Ohio
13. The Liberation of Walnut Cove
14. In Search of the Father
15. A Rite of Reconciliation
16. A Monument by the River


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Sort by: Showing all of 8 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2003


    my name is Michael Hairston i just started reading the book im glad some one made a book about my family now i can learn about wear i came from

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2006

    okay thats good i need to know

    we need too know about our family culture of the hairstons and hodge family i am a grandchild of the older horaisho family and sallie hodge which were my grandmother I did not know about this book

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2003

    Arkansas connection

    I haven't read the book yet. I just found out about it last night from my cousin. Our mothers were Hairstons from Warren, Arkansas. I never met my grandparents because they died when my mother was a young girl. Her father's name was Alexander and I don't remember my grandmothers name. I was so excited to hear that a book had been written about my family. My mother's name was Frances E. Hairston. I plan on reading the book as soon as it becomes available. I saw the television show last year, and thought then how I must have been related to these people, because 'Hairston' is not the most common name around. In fact, my family is the only Hairston's I ever knew existed. I am so excited to be able to read about my mother's family history. Her siblings were:Dudley, Dewayne, Willarene, Laverne, and one other brother that died before I was born.They grew up in the Warren, Star City area.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2003

    This book was a BLESSING!

    My name is JoAnn Hairston Ellerbe. I live in New York, with both my parents and three siblins. Their is a total of eight. I have two sister's and one brother that still lives in Charlotte along with my cousins and their family. My father is Robert Luis Hairston, born in Charlotte NC. He had two sister's, saddly, they both died. I was informed by my relatives (from Charlotte) that Mr. Henry Wiencek was writting a book on our family. I wished that I was able to have had the pleasure of speaking with him, but maybe at some later date. I would never be able to express the way this book truly made me feel. Now that I have the opportunity of thanking, Mr. Wiencek, Thanks.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 6, 2003

    I am also a descendant of the Hairstons

    I first heard of this book from my grandmother.(her maiden name is Hairston)I think that is something of an honor to have a book written about your family and to learn things about them you probably would have never known. I am black and white myself and i think that it is kind of ironic that the family started off black and white. I will write again in the near future to give my thoughts on the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2002

    The book was essential to me!

    I am so glad that someone took the time to explore resources, that were not as easily available for me, which tell the world about MY FAMILY LINEAGE and the pride that comes with bearing the name: Hairston. My mother is linked to the Marrowbone Plantation. If you have never visited Martinsville, so. The people are a beautiful tapestry of Black, Indian, and Scot-Irish. And this book weaves the story of Black and White jus a lovely. I grew up there for 18 years and love to invite others to visit this land of rich heritage. Thank you for writing this book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 2001

    Family member

    I'm a Hairston from Portsmouth,Ohio. I'm just overwhelmed at how the author was able to obtain information and facts of about my family that others and myself did not know.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 13, 1999

    I'm not a Hairston But The book Was great

    I read Slaves in the Family last year, which was good, but this one is a great contrast. Mr. Wiencek is able to go into the heart of a great American family. The decline and fall of the plantation family resulted from the Hairstons' greed. You could see that in how the Mississippi owners let the land go for mortgages. Fair and just treatment of the farm workers might have prevented the loss of the land to later generations. Everyone should read this book, and any other book on interracial families. We all are related in some way and should remember that.

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