A Family In Black And White

Meet The Hairstons, Black And White

All families have their disagreements. Sometimes the issues are personal, sometimes political. In that respect the Hairstons are no different than most American families.

But if it's taking them a little longer to sort things out, that's understandable, because for a very long time, one side of the family owned the other side. 60 Minutes II Correspondent Vicki Mabrey reports on a peculiarly American family saga.

At one time the Hairstons -- or "Harstons" as the white side of the family pronounces it -- were the Rockefellers of the old South. They owned not one but dozens of plantations, and thousands of slaves. The descendants of those slaves are now a huge family scattered across America. And yet they still have a powerful connection to each other, and to the plantations where their ancestors toiled.

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Jester Hairston was the first African-American to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. For most of this century he has been teaching white folks and black folks to sing spirituals the way his grandmother sang them as a slave on a Hairston plantation in North Carolina. When Jerry Hairston stepped up to the plate last season, the Hairstons stepped into the history books as the first black family to play major league baseball for three generations. His father and grandfather also played in the majors.

Everlee Hairston, a sharecropper's daughter and veteran of the Civil Rights marches, now lobbies in Washington for the rights of the blind.

Family is very important to the Hairstons. "My grandfather wanted us to bond," says Everlee. "He said it was important to know who you are and know who your family is. The whites were our family too, really, but it wasn't talked about."

For the Hairstons, family is serious business -- so serious, they're incorporated. The annual reunion of the national Hairston Clan, Inc. looks more like a convention than a typical family gathering. There are ministers and musicians, doctors and lawyers, big city bankers and small town barbers. And there are flag-waving patriots like World War II veteran Joe Henry Hairston.

Says Joe Henry: "When you meet all these Hairstons, you got nuts, you got saints, you got beautiful people, you got ugly people. But they're all family."

Not all of these Hairstons are connected by blood, but they are all connected by sweat and tears. They are named Hairston primarily because their ancestors worked on plantations owned by one of the biggest names in slavery.

When American history writer Henry Wiencek was researching a book on plantations, he was invited to a Hairston reunion.

"There were nearly 1,000 people," says Wiencek. "I was just amazed at the strengtof family feeling that could bring so many people together from so many distant places, and I wondered where did that family strength come from, and where were the roots of that gathering. Did it go back all the way to slavery? And that's where it did go."

The Hairstons so intrigued him that he spent the next eight years delving into its history. The result is his book: "The Hairstons: An American Family In Black and White."

When Wiencek discovered a faded document buried in the deed room of a county courthouse, he finally understood why Hairstons turn out in droves for today's family reunions.

"Over 700 Hairstons appeared that day," says Wiencek, of the day in 1866 when the government finally allowed former slaves to register their marriages and the names of their children. That also was the day they could choose a family name. Many of them chose the name Hairston.

Says Wiencek: "The real significance of this document is that this is a symbol of their victory over slavery. The white people very often believed that slaves could not hold marriages together, and this document proves them wrong."

How did the Hairston families survive a system designed to tear families apart? The answer lies in another document-- the Hairston family slave ledgers. What Wiencek calls the bank books of human souls. They believed in the Scottish maxim: "money is flat and meant to be piled up." So for generations, they never sold land and almost never sold off their slaves, leaving the slave families intact.

This mansion is one of the last vestiges of what once was a vast empire stretching from Virginia to Mississippi. The Hairstons were one of the wealthiest families of the Old South. How wealthy? At their financial peak they owned 40 plantations and 10,000 people.

Nearly 200 years after a Peter Hairston bought this land, there is still a Peter Hairston living on this plantation. This Peter Hairston, a judge, remembers the first time a black person was allowed to come into his house through the front door. It was Old William.

Old William, who was a servant on the plantation, was Everlee Hairston's grandfather. The judge remembers that occasion so well because he let "Old William" in. As a serious scholar of Southern history and a self-appointed guardian of the family's extensive archives, Judge Peter helped the black Hairstons trace their roots. He spent years compiling information on the slaves his family owned, and he's been welcoming black Hairstons through the front door for a very long time.

"I think that for much of his adult life he has quietly been trying to atone for what his grandfather and his farther ancestors did,", says Wiencek. "But he would never tell you that. And he certainly never told me that. But I can see it in what he did."

But if this looks like one big happy family, it's not. Everlee Hairston, for one, deeply resents how her family was treated. Everlee, who ws born and raised on the plantation, lost her eyesight in her 20s, but she has always managed to find her way. Her grandparents William and Charmin were the house servants, her parents were sharecroppers, and Everlee hated every cotton-picking minute.

"I was leaning forward to pick this cotton out of the cotton ball and I saw this long black snake," remembers Everlee. "I started yelling and screaming. Then I looked around. There was another one and another one. We all ran until we reached the end of a cotton row. So when I got to the top of the bags of cotton I just sat there, started crying, my head in my hands saying, 'Oh, God. There has to be a better way of life'."

She's a Northerner now, and yet she keeps going back to that plantation, this time with her son. Like it or not, it's home. And she visits the judge, who is now 87 and recovering from a stroke. Like it or not, he's family. But at a recent reunion when Judge Peter Hairston was an invited guest of honor, Everlee shocked hundreds of Hairstons by publicly accusing him of mistreating her family.

"When I started thinking about the day that I sat on those bags of cotton," Everlee says, "and thought how much I hated the fact we were working our hands off on somebody's else's land, for such a very very little pay, it was crazy. It was so unfair."

Wiencek was there, taking notes. It was a tense moment: "A silence fell over the crowd because no one had ever publicly spoken to the judge that way before. Then there was a round of applause. Because she had cut through decades of encrusted politeness and decorum to say, 'You could have done more for us.'"

But that wasn't the end of it. Everlee went back to the plantation, and continued the discussion.

Everlee recalls the conversation: "He said that we had lived a very good life on the plantation. And I told him 'you can continue to believe that but it's not true'."

" [He said] 'I treated William and Charmin quite well, Everlee. They didn't and couldn't do any better for themselves.' It was like a knife piercing my heart. I said, 'perhaps they couldn't or perhaps you made them think that they couldn't. But I know differently'."

Says the judge: "She speaks her peace and I speak mineÂ… I may not have done altogether right, nobody ever does." As he points out, he made the decision to end sharecropping on the plantation.

But the two are still friends. Why? "Because I'm concerned about his welfare," says Everlee. "He's a human being. He's probably my cousin." At this, she laughs.

But she means it. They could be cousins. She knows her light skin comes from having white ancestors; she just doesn't know which ones. Joe Henry Hairston has always wondered about his light skin, too. It is the legacy of slavery that he sees in the mirror every day. "We can see we don't look like our original descendants from West Africa," says Joe Henry"So it's obvious something happened in the interim."

In an amazing bit of detective work, Henry Wiencek traced Joe Henry's roots back to a slave named Sal, purchased in 1785 for a barrel of tobacco. This is the receipt for her. The frugal Hairstons kept careful track of their property.

From a family will, he figured out that the Peter Hairston, who died in 1832, had children by this slave named Sal, which means that the great great great grandfather of the judge is also the great great great grandfather of Joe Henry. "Well, we were property and so masters used their property," says Joe Henry.

The two men have not discussed this subject. "I consider Judge Peter a friend, a very good friend, and a very fine person," says Joe Henry. "But these are things you don't talk about in polite society in the South."

At first, the judge believed that there wasn't enough evidence to prove that he was related to Joe Henry Hairston. Joe Henry, who is also an attorney, was also skeptical.

Recently, though, the Judge changed his mind. "I have learned from my brother that he had had a conversation with an ancient cousin of ours that indeed it was probably true." So now the Judge has a new cousin. "I'm prouder to be kin to Joe Henry than to anybody else I know," he says.

And Joe Henry has no hard feelings. "I am the product of my ancestors, whoever they were," he says. "My basic philosophy is not to hate. Hate is destructive."

The black and white Hairstons are connected by the worst evil in America's history, but they have not turned their backs on each other. Because like it or not, they are family. They share a name, and a place, and a history.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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