This website is dedicated to descendants of people enslaved by the HAIRSTON family --
one of the largest slave holding families in the history of America.
The Hairstons owned 42 plantations in three states and enslaved more than 10,000 people over a two hundred year history.
SOURCE: The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White by Henry Wiencek (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999). Excerpts reprinted with permission.
At a plantation in North Carolina I met the heir to a family of slaveholders, perhaps the largest slaveholders in the South. On the same day, in the library of the old master's mansion, I met the grandson of one of those slaves. Both men shared the name Hairston. The family saga they began to tell spanned two centuries, from the Revolution to today. This is a story of the legacy of slavery, and how that legacy has been passed into our own time.
Since that meeting I have spent seven years exploring the past of these two families. I immersed myself in the immense Hairston plantation archive -- running to nearly 25,000 items; I scoured the records of counties, states, and courts; I studied the documents left by the slave traders, by the Quakers who aided runaway slaves and freedmen, and by the Yankee officers who imposed freedom on a bitter South. I spent weeks at a time reading the rosters of the slaves, trying to conjure some meaning from the endless litany of the dead. More important, I went out into the old plantation country in Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi to seek out the descendants of the slaves and recover the testimony of their exodus.
The black family's story is extraordinary -- the true story of the triumphant rise of a remarkable people -- the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of slaves, who struggled to pull themselves up from servitude and poverty to take their rightful places in mainstream America. A vast panorama of history unforlds in a narrative that places black Americans at the center of the national experience. Their story touches every facet of American endeavor, from Hollywood to Wall Street, from the coal fields of West Virginia to the battlefields of Europe in World War II, from a cotton plantation in Mississippi to the computer command center that guided Neil Armstrong to the moon.
In contrast, it has been the fate of the white family -- once one of the wealthiest in America -- to endure the decline and fall of the Old South. But that was only part of the tale. beneath the surface lay a hidden history, the history of slavery's curse and how that curse followed the slaveholders for generation after generation. Beneath layers of lies and myth existed a story the slaveholders and their descendants had kept hidden for almost a century and a half. It was not a story of horror, but of love and heroism powerful enough to shake the foundation myth of the South.
In the end, the story of these families is a parable of redemption. It is about the universal human struggle to come to terms with the past. Paradoxically, these families found that one way to transcend the past is to embrace it.
The Lives of the Hairston Slaves
The lives of the black Hairstons as enslaved people were written in the plantation ledger books. They appeared mostly as lists of names -- bookkeeping entries, pure and simple. Slaves aged twelve to fifty were taxable, so the master had to make a list of them every year; twice a year the slaves were clothed, so the mistress made a list of who got pants, shirts, shoes, and coats; when a child was born, it got a blanket -- and so a notation was made on the list. When the master died, an inventory was made of all his property, including the slaves, who were called together by the officers of the court and counted, their names written again in the ledger in long columns, with long columns of figures -- the dollar value of each man, woman, and child.
And so we have lists of names -- thousands of them, column after column, page after page; bare evidence of existence, in records as inscrutable as the clay tablets of Babylon.