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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 1999
This book is, quite frankly, one of the most powerful books I have read in a long time. The author chronicles a southern family's history, unwinding the complex relationships between master and slave and illuminating the enormous contributions of African-Americans to the growth and development of our country--a history long neglected and nearly unknown. As this well researched tale unfolds, the mystery of this family's heritage, their contributions, their curse, and their redemption---both black and white---becomes understood. Their story is our nation's story. I now have a better understanding of why the legacy of slavery continues to haunt our relationships even down to this day. Every American should read this book!
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on May 12, 1999
This book has had a profound impact on me, and I encourage you to read it. Wiencek has done a painstaking job of documenting the legacy of slavery on the white and African American descendants of the Hairston line. Wiencek uses court records, actual letters written by the early white Hairston planters, interviews with present-day descendants, and other texts to trace the rise and fall of the white Hairstons and unconquerable spirit of the black Hairstons.
Moreover, the "protests" one sees in these reviews by some of the present-day white descendants of the Hairston planters lends even more credence to the devastating story of greed, sorrow, poverty, and ultimately, triumph painted by Wiencek's seven years of research into the Hairston families' history. Were I a white descendant, I imagine it would not be welcome to have the mythology about one's family as benevolent, caring owners who never sold their slaves exploded. (Indeed, if any African Americans may have a legal claim for reparations, surely the black Hairston family does, for Wiencek "discovers" how the white Hairston family deliberately stole the inheritance--worth millions in present-day dollars--of one of their ancestors, a mulatto child whose father, a wealthy Hairston plantation owner, left her the bulk of his estate. I won't spoil the entire story for you by saying more here. You can learn the details yourself when you buy the book.) And Wiencek does explode the myth, not through rhetoric or anecdotes but through the use of documents that, for example, show the sales of children from their families. Wiencek also provides the reader with an extensive bibliography and chapter endnotes to give authority of each claim made in the book.
The only "complaint" I might have with this book--and it's no complaint--is that I often find the story within it painful to read. I'm a fast reader, yet I find I can only read this book a chapter or two at a time, or some days, depending on the passages, only a few pages at a sitting. I then have to stop and move on to some other task to try to shake off the feeling of heaviness that envelopes me. In those moments, I am sometimes struck by how far the owners would go to obtain and retain their property, and that includes their slaves. By how resentful many became after slavery's end and how they saw their former slaves' leaving of the plantation as a betrayal. By the strength and courage of the slaves themselves and their present-day descendants. By how some whites, despite the times in which they lived, had the courage to defend and assist the slaves and their descendants.
America is truly a land of complexity and contradiction when it comes to the relationship between blacks and whites, and no story brings the strangeness of that relationship more to light than that of the Hairstons.
Please, read this book and judge its merits for yourself. See if you find it as wonderful, as awful, as inspiring as I do.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
When Henry Wiencek was doing background work for a book on old houses, he visited a plantation home in North Carolina called Cooleemee. Cooleemee has been owned continuously by the Hairston family, and the present owner is Judge Peter W. Hairston. Wiencek asked Hairston if he knew of any descendents of Cooleemee slaves, and he was introduced to Squire Hairston. This chance encounter lead Wiencek on a seven year odyssey to discover the history of not just the white Hairston family, but the black Hairston's as well. The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White is an incredibly fascinating book that reflects not just the history of one family, but the story of our nation. Fortunately for his readers, Wiencek writes this historical narrative to read like a novel.

The Hairston's were once one of the richest plantation families. Together, they owned 45 plantations in three states, and Samuel Hairston was said to own over 10,000 slaves (the most slaves ever owned by one person). The Hairston's tended to marry other Hairston's to keep the plantations in the family. But their way of life changed forever after the Civil War. While the fortunes of the white Hairston's never recovered, the black Hairston's were able to make something of their lives. Due to perseverance and discipline, they became engineers, farmers, musicians, lawyers, teachers, farmers, principals and ministers.

Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball covers a similar subject matter, but Wiencek's book gives us much more of a historical perspective. The history of the Hairston's in American begins around 1729 and continues to the present. The author touches on the Revolution, the Abolitionist Movement, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement, blacks in the military and integration. These stories are all told through the eyes of the Hairston clan. Much of the success of The Hairstons: An American Family is due to Judge Peter. He opened his home and his archives (over 25,000 documents) to Wiencek and never put any conditions on where the author's research might lead. Cooleemee is also always open to his black brethren, and he embraced these Hairston "kin" with open arms. When Squire Hairston passed away, Judge Peter sat in the front row of the church and sobbed uncontrollably.

What truly drives this book are the themes of love and friendship, forgiveness and redemption, and loyalty and reconciliation. We also see how determination, perseverance and faith can overcome so many obstacles. The Hairston family exhibits great family pride, and over a thousand black Hairston's gather each year for a reunion. Wiencek will also have you running an emotional gamut from incredulity to outrage to finally, hope. You will see that despite the horrible history of slavery and prejudice, both sides of the Hairston clan have come together in a spirit of forgiveness and acceptance (something the relatives of Edward Ball were not able to do). Wiencek also did extensive research to discover the truth behind many family mysteries. In some respects, it reads more like a mystery, although he wasn't able to solve all the unanswered questions.

My only complaints about The Hairstons are minor ones: the family tree was a bit confusing in spots. Also, I thought the picture selections could have been better, and there could have been more of them. A map of the Mississippi plantations would have also been helpful. But please don't let these small problems detract from an otherwise excellent book. Although I have borrowed this book from the library, I will definitely purchase a copy for my collection.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on January 24, 2000
I consider myself to be an avid reader, but there were times as I read that I had to put the book down due to emotions that boiled up in me as I read. Not so much of anger,(there was some), but of sorrow and despair. Mostly because of what these people went through, but also because so many southerners are even today ignorant of their history, glorifying, what at the time was as bad if not worse than Nazi Germany of the 30's and 40's. To quote a famous man "those who don't know their history are doomed to repeat it". This book will be required reading for my entire family. Both immediate and extended.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2003
I am the niece and greatniece to two relatives in the book from pages 120. Jean is my aunt and Bay is my great aunt. For many years, our grandmother, Laura Hairston Cunningham Crenshaw told the stories of how powerful her family was. She always said she was black. Being very young at the time, I couldn't really understand why she kept saying that because she didn't look Black. This family history is fulled with the curses and blessings that come from years of sinful living and righteous living. My siblings and I visited our grandmother in Mississippi several times in our youth. My sister read the book and she was in tears, an older brother read the book and he became angry. I choose to accept the past for what it is. I have lived with my father who has direct knowledge of that family going back several generations, yet, he never discusses his life as a youth growing up in the heart of the South as a Hairston. His two brothers are now deceased but they left children behind. We have family members in Chicago and St. Louis as well as Mississippi.
I can only tell you that wealth extracts a price of its own. So does being poor. My father loved his mother and his maternal grandfather. He came away from Mississippi having learned about the character of a man and how to measure it. He loved his children (and there are many of us). He loved his brothers and his sister. We may never know the depths of his hurt and we may never understand if the hurt is the result of being a Hairston or the product of a so-called bi-racial marriage. What our family knows is that the past owes us nothing. The stories that are told about this side of the family don't matter. We were loved by them and they loved us. God brought the family through those times and continues to smile on us today. Every family has a story to tell. The Bible is filled with stories of the lives of those who passed on many years ago. Our destiny is to learn from those who have passed on. Each of us shoulders a responsibility to achieve whatever is good and right in God's sight. No more and no less.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
Subtitled, "An American Family in Black and White", this is a true story of a Southern family that spans the years from 1790 to the present day. The author, Henry Wiencek, is a northern journalist who specializes in old homes. One day, when visiting an historic plantation in Virginia, the owner piqued the author's interest by telling him anecdotes and showing him historical records. The author was fascinated and started doing research and interviewing the surviving members of the family, including the descendents of the slaves who had also taken the last name of Hairston, many of whom were related by blood.
This is not only the story of one particular family. It is the story of America itself and the awful institution of slavery. The white family members look back on it with anguish and never make any apology for it. Historically though, there are letters and documents in which they try to justify it. For example, at the beginning of the 19th Century one young white plantation owner visited England and wrote a letter about appalling conditions of the factory workers in London who lived in squalor compared to his well-treated slaves in Virginia.
During the 19th Century, most of the whites merely accepted the situation with the exception of one plantation owner in Mississippi. When he died, he left his entire plantation to his daughter who was born to a slave woman. Such a thing was unheard of at the time. The case was delayed in the courts for years while the daughter and her mother were quickly sold. The writer did a lot of research and finally traced the daughter, who wound up with a very interesting life of her own, even though she remained a slave.
Some of the stories of the Civil War were fascinating, especially the role of the former slaves who became soldiers in the Union Army. In one particular battle in Mississippi, they fought so bravely that their Illinois white fellow soldiers risked their own lives to save them. In another documented incident with northern soldiers, a white man was disciplined harshly for disrespecting one of the black men. This kind of respect changed however. The Buffalo Soldiers of WW2 were treated badly. It was hard to read about how they were sent into battle by incompetent leaders. The author interviewed one of these Buffalo Soldiers who was still alive and some of his stories are fascinating.
Another one of the living black descendents is Jester Hairston, who acted in the movie "The Alamo" with John Wayne. He now is one of the most respected historians of slave music and travels around the country continuing his research and giving lectures. Many of the former slaves settled near the Virginia plantation and opened businesses and sent their children to college. Basically, they've done much better than the white plantation owners who just sold off one parcel of land after another until it was practically all gone.
The black Hairstons have a long-standing annual family reunion and the author joined them on several occasions. Eventually, they all visited the still-standing plantation and met the white owner, who was honest in his understanding of what a horrible institution slavery was. Eventually, they have made peace between them.
I loved this book. It had great stories. Wonderful authentic history. And a fine theme about forgiveness. I also felt I met some great people along the way. Highly recommended.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
All right, let's sum up:
1. Yes, the author is biased against the white people in this fascinating story. But he is candid enough to admit it and those instances when this prejudice appear are easy to identify and thus deal with on the part of an alert reader. Why the author thinks you cannot love your grandfather and respect his accomplishments even though he was flawed (as all human beings are) is a great mystery. Why he thinks sins are inherited is even more mystifying.
2. Yes, the family trees are confusing but the anecdotes are great
3. Well-written.
4. Written by a Yankee, yes, but one with a fascination for the South.
Summation: This book has flaws but it is still well worth reading and much better than Slaves in the Family or Confederates in the Attic
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 19, 2000
I picked up this book in Dallas,TX and realized that I lived 45 minutes away from where it took place, I wanted to get in my car and drive there (don't do that, it is still private property) It is a wonderful book, I could not put it down. It is not preachy or boring, it is not filled with words but visual pictures woven into fascinating family tapestries. It tells the story of two families, one white, and one black (owned as slaves), It talks about the days of slavery to now. Where the families are today and the relationship they share in the present. It was one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I can't believe I never heard of it before now. The mark of a good book for me is when I do have to put it down I find myself thinking about it, I found this happened a great deal with this volume, run to get it, it is one of the best books I have ever read (and I read alot :D)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Readers reluctant to read THE HAIRSTONS because of its similarity to Edward Ball's SLAVES IN THE FAMILY should not be dissuaded. In some ways, this is a better book.

The author Henry Wiencek provides a sometimes confusing family tree of both white and black Hairstons. Once you get used to it, you will find yourself paging back and forth trying to find the Hairston Wiencek is talking about. What I found most fascinating was how the Hairstons kept the plantations in the family. For instance, "Saura Town Peter" Hairston arranged for his daughter Ruth to marry his nephew Robert after her first husband, Peter Wilson, died young. This usually worked, but in this instance, Robert, who wanted to free his slaves against Peter's daughter's wishes, left his family. He established another Hairston dynasty in Mississippi.

When Wiencek tells us about Robert and his heirs, the book becomes fascinating. Robert fell in love with one of his slaves, having a daughter with her. When he died, he left his plantations to the daughter, Chrillis. The other Hairstons, some of whom had followed Robert to Mississippi, fought the will, and when that didn't work they transferred Chrillis to another plantation, telling the judge she had died. Wiencek tracks down Chrillis, and she's not the only former slave he's able to ferret out. Once again "Saura Town Peter" enters the picture. Wiencek contends that "Saura Town Peter" had another family with one of his slaves, Sally Blag. At a reunion of the black Hairstons, Wiencek meets Joseph Henry Hairston. Joseph knows he had a white ancestor but is unable to trace any further back than a slave named Elias. Wiencek is able to find strong circumstantial evidence that "Saura Town Peter" may have been the Joseph's white ancestor.

Joseph Henry Hairston is a remarkable man. He works his way up from sharecropper to army officer to lawyer for the federal government. Joseph and Judge Peter Wilson Hairston, the present owner of Cooleemee Plantation on the Yadkin River in North Carolina, are the central protagonists in the book. Judge Peter opens his archives to Wiencek and helps him all he can to write this book, although he's worried what Wiencek may say. The white Hairstons insist that their family was kind to their slaves. Judge Peter's worst fears come true when Wiencek shows the Judge's grandfather selling Robert Hairston's slaves down the river.

There is reconciliation at the end, however, as Judge Peter opens Cooleemee to the black Hairstons and the black Hairstons embrace their heritage no matter how cruel some of the Hairston ancestors and overseers were to their people.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 1999
I married into this family 27years ago. One of the reasons was because this was the first black family that I had ever seen to be so cohesive and large. My father-in-law's name is Major Lee Hairston,Sr. and comes from Martinsville Virginia,I believe he has 12-16 siblings, some of them still living there. My husband is 1 of 11. He told me years ago that the name was pronounced Hoston or Harston.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and was very proud that my husband's family participated in the making of America and its history regardless of the role.
I believe the book allows black people a hope and desire to continue our struggle out of 'Jim Crow' and America's inequality.
The author mentioned that the family contained distinctive characteristics, but he did not list them. In my observation of the family plus my own children they are 1)fingernails 2)lips 3)nose 4) flat forehead 5)length of hair and/or texture and 5)skin color and/or eye color. They may posses 1 or all of these features, they're also usually petite.
My only compliant is that the book ended, I was ready to read more. We are sending a copy to Melvin's parents in Roanoke. Sincerely Mr.&Mrs Melvin (Brenda)Hairston Columbus, Ohio P.S. I wish he could have found more pictures.
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