Storing up Stokes memories: Author of The Hairstons visits Walnut Cove
This scholarly man, Boston-born and Yale-educated, admitted, “It was a very emotional moment for me to come back here.” He had spent much time in Pine Hall and Walnut Cove many years ago when he researched the subject of the Hairston family. And now he was back to recount his experience with the book that in some ways changed his life.
Wiencek, the author of several books, now lives in Charlottesville, VA, and is a member of the Hairston clan, despite his lack of blood ties. He became so wrapped up with the family while writing the story that he has maintained those ties over the course of about 20 years. He was introduced to the audience in Walnut Cove on Sunday afternoon, Mar. 13, by John Will Hairston, another member of the clan.
The book about which Wiencek spoke took over a decade to write. It deals with the history of the Hairston family—both black and white—from the 1700’s to the modern day. “In the middle of it, it was a very hard thing to do,” the bespectacled author confessed. “It was a very hard history to hear.”
And to think it all started when Wiencek simply set out to write a 2,000-word piece about the old Hairston plantation house at Coolemee. Before he knew it, he was wrapped up in the Hairston saga and realized he had a book on his hands.
As he interviewed members of the family, Wiencek stumbled onto heartwrenching facts. “Things came out from the blacks and the whites,” he explained. “When an outsider comes in, that can be the catalyst.”
Wiencek researched the history of blacks in Stokes County. He told of a lynching in the 1880’s outside of Danbury. A black man had been convicted of raping a white woman on very thin evidence. The local Ku Klux Klan broke him out of jail so that they could lynch him themselves. “History in this part of the world is thick on the ground,” Wiencek noted, adding that he found enlightenment while studying in Stokes.
Most of his research involved the Hairston family. “They were forward-looking people,” Wiencek stated. “The didn’t hold grudges. They believed in the importance of education and hard work.”
Somehow this family persevered through the years of slavery and then freedom albeit with segregation. Wiencek quoted the black author Ralph Ellison who referred to segregation as “a hole of darkness.”
The progenitor of the Hairston clan was a white man named Peter Hairston, who was probably Scots-Irish. In the mid-1700’s, he began a large operation called the Sauratown Plantation on thousands of acres of land on the Pine Hall side of Walnut Cove. He more than likely had a longstanding relationship with Sally Blagg, a black slave woman on his plantation. It is thought that Peter fathered several children by her; his will instructed his daughter Ruth not to sell any of Sally’s offspring. Peter also left some of his land to two of Sally’s sons, whom he probably fathered.
Before 1782, a slaveowner had to go to the General Assembly to free a slave. About 1806, a new rule came into being; a slaveowner could free slaves, but the blacks had to leave the state within one year or be a slave again. The rules became even stricter as the Civil War years approached. This probably explains why Peter and his white descendants didn’t free the black slaves which shared their blood.
Wiencek also spent much time researching this nation’s founding fathers with regard to slavery. He told how George Washington freed all of his slaves, “driven by a sense of justice.” Thomas Jefferson, however, was different. Wiencek called him “an enthusiastic slaveholder.” Wiencek then startled the crowd with these words, “We live in Jefferson’s America, not Washington’s America.”
As he led the rapt audience through the country’s years of dealing with slavery and its aftermath, Wiencek told of the Virginia convention where whites fought to disenfranchise blacks and “the poorer and lower elements of our own race.” People thought this was just the way it was, the author said. Blacks absorbed the idea that they were inferior through those years.
But then there were people like John L. Hairston who was interviewed by Wiencek before Hairston died several years ago. John L. was the seventh generation from the original Hairston settlers in the Walnut Cove/Pine Hall area. He went to great lengths to receive an education, even repeating the same grade a few times in the local school because it was the highest grade there and he wanted to learn. He even traveled at great hardship to a neighboring county where blacks were educated to a higher standard.
Finally John L. ended up with an engineering degree from A & T University in Greensboro. He was offered a job in New Jersey as an engineer where he would make much more money than he could in the still rigidly-segregated South. When his grandmother died and he had to stay in Stokes County longer than expected, John L. lost his position in N.J.
This well-educated black man ended up bagging groceries at the A & P in Greensboro. An offer came to him to teach math at the all-black London School in Walnut Cove. John L. took the job and taught for a while before being offered the engineering position in N.J. once more. It would have paid twice as much money as he was making as a teacher.
“He had in his hand the ticket to a better life,” Wiencek proclaimed.
But John L. turned down the engineering job.
Wiencek attempted to explain, “If he stayed here, he could make a difference.” The author compared John L. to the fictitious character George Bailey in the famous Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. “He’s the only man who could save the town,” Wiencek said of John L.
Before long, John L. was principal of London School. Although the nation had already passed desegregation laws, Stokes County schools were still segregated. To avoid being called on the carpet for continuing segregation, the county had a “freedom of choice” plan in effect; anybody could go to any school they wanted to attend. Of course no whites wanted to go to London where the equipment was often inferior—hand-me-down books and tools from the white schools.
After some years of this, HEW officials came down from Washington, D.C., to investigate. They declared that the “freedom of choice” plan was not working. There became a very real possibility that London School might be closed and John L. would lose his job. When the federal officials visited Stokes County Schools Superintendent R.M. Green, the superintendent bragged on John L. The ironic thing was that when Green would hold meetings of principals in the county, he never invited John L.
History was made when students from London School marched in protest down Main Street of Walnut Cove. They did not want their school closed, and they wanted to keep their principal. The march ended up fully integrating Walnut Cove when a student leader, Vincent Withers, boldly but politely entered the formerly segregated Vernon’s Grill to buy a Coke. From that day on, blacks no longer had to go to the back door of the restaurant to get food. Suddenly they didn’t sit in the balcony of the movie theater anymore, and they could access the local laundromat.
While the students marched, John L. took great care to be out of Walnut Cove. In a humorous twist, he scheduled a meeting with the superintendent at the time of the march. In the end, the decision was made by the school board to keep London School open with John L. as its principal. It became a grammar school, serving fifth through eighth graders of all races. Stokes County Schools became integrated at that time in 1969.
As Wiencek concluded his talk to those gathered on that Sunday afternoon, his emotions were clearly visible. This Northern man, who had intended to write a short article about a white Southern family, had ended up writing book which had opened up secret areas of the Hairston family—both black and white. Although the experience enriched his life in many ways, Wiencek confesses emotionally, “The pain still comes back.”