article pic 1 500Published: September 10, 1989
By ROBERT E. TOMASSON, Special to The New York Times

The Hairstons held their annual family reunion here this weekend, not far from two of the plantations where their forebears toiled as slaves or ruled as masters.

For Peter W. Hairston, who is white, and Collie Hairston, who is black, their common heritage in the world of the pre-Civil War plantations was not very far away. In the 124 years since the end of the Civil War, some descendants of the white owners retain their elite positions as well as ownership of much of the vast plantations that were the economic and social backbone of the Old South.

And many descendants of the slaves, in a generation-by-generation improvement, have moved into the professions, the clergy, the military, business and the arts.

In a remarkable celebration by a clan that may be the most extensively documented group of descendants of slaves, 1,400 black Hairstons came from 14 states to their four-day reunion here. Their ancestors, like many slaves, adopted the name of their former masters when slavery ended because they had known no other surname.

Handful of Whites Welcomed

While the reunion was overwhelmingly a black affair, a handful of white Hairstons attended and were warmly welcomed, especially Peter Hairston, a 76-year-old retired Superior Court judge, who is the clan's historian.

With the ''Hairston Clan Reunion'' emblazoned on baseball caps, T-shirts and bumper stickers, they poured into the Radisson Hotel for four days of dances, dinners, a barbecue and meetings to promote scholarships and kinship among white and black Hairstons.

The local Hairstons have been meeting every third Sunday for 58 years. Since the early 1930's Jester J. Hairston , a composer, conductor, actor and 88-year-old patriarch, has called every Hairston he could in the telephone books of towns and cities he traveled through. Some were white and some black, and most were curious about the history of the family.

In 1936, he recounted, after he appeared on a radio show in Los Angeles, he received a call from a listener named Hairston who wondered if they were related. He recited the Scottish origins of the white Hairstons and the listener was convinced they were related. ''I told her we must be cousins, but I didn't tell her I was the grandson of a slave,'' he said.

Surprised at Dinner Meeting

He met the listener for dinner and her confused surprise at meeting a black Hairston turned to amusement and curiosity. That meeting 53 years ago with Clara Hairston was apparently the start of the black Hairstons' efforts to incorporate the whites into the family gatherings.

That effort continues, organizers of the reunion said, as the family plans to establish state chapters in Georgia and Michigan.

756px Cooleemee Plantation Davie County North CarolinaJudge Hairston is the sixth-generation owner of Cooleemee, one of the Hairston plantations 20 miles southwest of High Point along the Yadkin River. With 4,200 acres during its heyday in the early 1800's, Cooleemee retains 2,300 acres of farmland and woods along with a columned house listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

To the north, the judge's brother, Nelson George Hairston, the Philip Keenan Professor of Zoology at the University of North Carolina, is a family owner of Saura Town, with about 6,000 acres.

Stories of the Plantations

Judge Hairston noted that his brother was one of four Hairstons listed in an edition of Who's Who a few years ago. The others were black, including Maj. Gen. Guy Edward Hairston Jr. of the Air Force.

Memories of the plantation for many of the Hairston blacks are limited to stories from grandparents or great-grandparents. But others, like Collie Hairston, who lives outside Camden, N.J., have more immediate remembrances.

In a photo from 1922 in ''The Cooleemee Plantation and its People,'' an account written by Judge Hairston in 1986, a young Collie Hairston, another black Hairston youth and a young white Hairston are shown, their arms around each other, laughing in a scene of adolescent playfulness.

''I can't tell you what it means to come here, to have this family,'' Collie Hairston said at one of the many parties during the reunion. The sentiment was echoed by many at the reunion, the 16th held by the National Hairston Clan.

Hairstons Marrying Hairstons

article pic 2''Seeing these people, knowing we have the same background, that we are a family that goes way back is very important to me,'' said Joseph Henry Hairston, a black 67-year-old retired lawyer from Washington. ''But believe me, it can get very complicated.''

The complications arise from the practice of Hairstons' marrying Hairstons, who presumably are not blood relations.

The retired lawyer noted that the maiden name of his wife's half brother is Hairston. And while their fathers were different men, both were named Hairston. The retired judge's great-great-uncle Robert married the mother-in-law of his younger brother, Sam. ''Her name was Hairston also,'' said Peter Hairston.

The founder of the Hairston clan was Peter Hairston, born about 1695 in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, who came to America in 1729 and died 1780. By 1851, a publication called The Richmond Whig termed a descendant, Samuel H. Hairston, the largest slaveholder in the country. By the Civil War, the Hairston plantations were spread over Virginia, North Carolina and Mississippi. Much of the land is still retained by Hairstons and their relations.

The black and white Hairstons have retained one vocal distinction. The blacks pronounce the name HAIR-ston, while the whites retain a Scottish ring with HOS-tin.

Top - Shirley, left, and Iris Hairston of Washington at the family reunion in High Point, N.C. Their ancestors adoped the Hairston name of their former masters when slavery was ended.

Middle - Cooleemee Plantation

Bottom - W. Hairston, the sixth-generation owner of the Cooleemee Plantation.

1,400 Hairstons Honor Kinship Born of Slavery
By ROBERT E. TOMASSON, Special to The New York Times

Published: September 10, 1989
Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company

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