The Hairstons

Coolmeemee 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.

. . . 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 question.

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.

– The Hairstons An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wiencek

From the book jacket:

“The history of the Hairston family is the story of slavery and its legacy in America. In this profound, deeply moving portrait of one of America’s largest clans, Henry Wiencek shows how one family has struggled with the brutal reality of slavery and the cruelties that followed it. Paradoxically, this family looks to their history as a source of strength, and has sought to overcome slavery’s bitter legacy by embracing the past. The message of hope that resonates throughout The Hairstons is one that may help all Amerians to confront the past and find in it the seeds of a hopeful future.


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