Blog

Sallie Hairston Johnson Bullock

circa 1942

 

A Crumbled Dynasty

1 May 2013

 

GUEST BLOG by Diana Roman

I can still smell the musty pages of one of my mother’s most cherished possessions — the family bibles. They were among the few items she had left from a crumbled dynasty. On the frontal pages, the matriarch of the time would chronicle the lives of family members after their passing.  (The Hairston family seemed to have a regular practice of recording endless details of their lives.)

I knew my mother, Sallie Staples Hunt Hairston, was born in the countryside of Virginia, and I knew her family had a long-standing history as the earliest settlers in Pittsylvania County. It was only recently that I learned the full scope of what the Hairston dynasty was and how it derived its wealth. 

My ancestors were among the wealthiest people of their time — not because they had the most money in the bank, but because they owned the most slaves in American history.  The sheer size and scope of their “business” boggles my mind. The Hairston family owned 42 plantations in three states and enslaved more than 10,000 people.

 

Oak Hill Plantation Mansion in Pittsylvania County, VA — built in 1825 by Samuel Hairston

I try to imagine “upbeat” scenarios of day-to-day plantation life and how my ancestors surely must have been “good” to their slaves — not like all the other “mean” slave owners.  But is there really such a thing as a benevolent master?

Five generations later, I struggle to comprehend what happened and how I feel in my heart to be connected to ancestors who did something I so totally abhor. 

In the final analysis, l can’t deny my connection, but what that engenders for me is a burning desire to do something “right.” I long to “reconcile” this inheritance so my children can inherit a different legacy.

I recently began to wonder if my ancestors chronicled the lives of their slaves with as much meticulous detail as they did themselves.  Amazingly, I found that they did. They recorded all of the marriages, deaths and births of the 10,000+ people they enslaved in ledgers that span a 200 year period of history.

Once I got over the ugliness, I realized that these ledgers are a gold mine of genealogy.  While the Hairston family was among the biggest  sinners of slavery, their wealth allowed them the luxury of rarely selling slaves; which means they rarely broke up families. Their ledgers provide documentation that can help so many contemporary African American descendants discover their relationships – to people past and present.

I realize that the data in these ledgers may bring initial sadness to those descended from the people the Hairstons enslaved.  But I am hoping researchers will take faith in a lingering personal respect and admiration for those ancestors who were strong enough  to endure their predicament and continue against all odds to embrace the dream of a better life for their children – just as I do for my own.

Today, if you were to visit the land where the grand old mansion “Oak Hill” used to be, you would find an overgrown yard and a pile of bricks.  My mother never lived in the big old house, but rather in a makeshift log cabin built to house her family temporarily until the matriarch, her grandmother, died. I can’t help but consider it a blessing that she never lived the life she dreamed, of being heiress to a mansion built on the proceeds of slavery.  Rather, she grew up a poor country girl in the shadows of shame. 

 

Oak Hill mansion was burned down by vandals in 1988

It is my sincerest hope that my generation can reconcile the family “issue” of slavery.  I am on a mission to make the contents of the Hairston ledgers available online – through Our Black Ancestry. This is a history that belongs to us all. It is yours and mine; black and white; slave holder and enslaved. We have to name it and claim it in order to move forward.EVERYONE deserves to know from whence they came and it is my deepest desire to bring honor and respect to the lives of the people the Hairston family might have held in physical bondage but whose souls they never truly enslaved.

 

 

 

Ben Affleck…. Let’s Meet in the Middle

29 April 2015

 

GUEST POST by Diana Roman – President, Our Black Ancestry Foundation

 

“There, but for the grace of God, go I.” ~ John Bradford

My mother used to say that phrase all the time. In fact it’s engraved on her headstone. As an adult, I now realize she was trying to teach me about empathy.

Few people can empathize more with Ben Affleck than me. Why? Because I am descended from a family that is said to have owned the most slaves in American history. Over a 200 year period, my ancestors enslaved more than 10,000 people on 43 plantations in three states. I first discovered this family history about 10 years ago and remain in horrified awe of the size and scope of the family “business.” Am I responsible for their behavior? Not at all. But I am accountable to the legacy of what they did. I inherit their story and can either choose to ignore it or to use it to create something positive.

“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” ~ Brené Brown

Everyone is focused on shaming Ben Affleck for causing his story to be edited for PBS and later rationalizing his request by saying he was embarrassed for that part of his family history to be told. Even though it’s 2015, slavery is still “the big ugly” that most white folks don’t want to deal with. The bigger issue is: Why is the mere mention of slavery still so taboo and inflammatory? Is it really about slavery or is it about the current state of affairs for African Americans in our society today? Is it about the discussion we know we should have but don’t want to?

History lesson: Twelve million Africans were kidnapped from their home countries and sold into slavery via the transatlantic slave trade. Seven million were dispersed throughout the Caribbean; four million were sold to Brazil. Half a million were transported to America and two hundred thousand went to Europe. One begs the question, why does the country with the smaller statistic for culpability possess the worst state of race relations in the world more than 200 years after the slave trade was abolished and more than 150 years after its slaves were emancipated? It’s our national dysfunction to cast blame everywhere except on our own doorstep. Casting blame on others is so much easier than looking in the mirror and confronting the racial issues that exist in our nation today. My interpretation is that this is the dialogue we are all trying to avoid. Let’s not talk about fixing the legacy from slavery. It’s much easier to condemn the past and do nothing about today.

“If you numb the darkness, you numb the light.” ~ Brené Brown

When we avoid the dialogue we need to be having about race, we rob ourselves of the power of the cure we so desperately need. People, it’s time to talk about race in this country. In fact, it’s way past time. I get why Ben Affleck didn’t want to open that dark chamber. That’s why you typically don’t see people run towards a burning building — it’s logical to run away from danger. It’s a spontaneous act of self-preservation. But the fact is that there is still so much darkness about slavery and the racism it engendered in our society. In my mind, that conundrum beckons the thought that we should be about turning on the light.

“Vulnerability is essential to create something that never existed before.” ~Brené Brown

The Chinese symbol for crisis is made up of two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” Ben, you may think this episode is the worst PR event of your career, but I challenge you to see it as opportunity. You have the eyes and ears of the nation tuned in your direction. Use that spotlight to promote dialogue that addresses the state of affairs in the country we all so dearly love and help jump start the healing.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; Who at his worst if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

Ben Affleck, you are the man in the arena. I empathize with your fear, your shame, and your embarrassment. I get that, when you look at the potentially damaging PR nightmare, you see fear of all it could destroy that you’ve worked so hard to build. But I challenge you: Don’t let the fear of this dialogue rob you of the power to utilize this opportunity for healing and change. Dump your demons. Get past your embarrassment.

I’ll meet you in the middle… Let’s make a difference!

 

 

 

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www.ourblackancestry.com

 

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