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The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White Hardcover – February, 1999

65 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews Review

The Hairstons traces the complex lineage and fascinating legacy of one of America's largest families. Henry Wiencek explores the lives of black and white members of the Hairston clan, as they have accepted each other as one family, easing the historical divide between the races, and reveals how Southern families have been affected by slavery's legacy and by the burden it continues to carry. Visiting family reunions, interviewing family members, and exploring old plantations, Wiencek combs the far-reaching branches of the Hairston family tree to gather anecdotes from members about their ancestors and piece together a family history that involves the experiences of both plantation owners and their slaves. He expertly weaves the Hairstons' stories from all sides of historical events like slave emancipation, Reconstruction, school segregation, and lynching. For example, from a black Hairston, Wiencek learns of a slave who burned rail fences to cook a hog for his starving comrades; white Hairstons record the incident as an act of slave indolence, a way to hinder the next day's work.

As Wiencek tells the stories of individual Hairstons, he uncovers the layers of a shared history at times painful, shameful, extraordinary, and joyful. Beautifully describing the land of the South and faithfully recounting what he has been told, Wiencek testifies that he "heard history not as a historian would write it but as a novelist would imagine it." The dynamic stories in The Hairstons are not solely one family's legacy but a record that reflects America's complicated process of healing and understanding the mark of slavery. --Amy Wan

From Publishers Weekly

Covering similar ground as Edward Ball's National Book Award-winning Slaves in the Family, Wiencek steps gracefully through the intricate web that links two family trees, one white and one black. Because it's not his own family history he explores, Wiencek doesn't labor under the burden of personal moral accountability that made Ball's book so powerful. He intends his book as a national "parable of redemption"?and he succeeds, admirably, in presenting the Hairstons as a metaphor for the nation while also presenting the specificity of their history, which he learned by traveling through three Southern states in search of interviews and courthouse records. He attempts a balance between the two stories over centuries of ignored heritage and denied kin. At one point, the founding Hairston family owned several plantations and hundreds of slave families over three states. Master Peter Hairston and his former slave Thomas Harston fought on opposite sides in the Civil War, and "the success of one brought the other low." As Wiencek follows the Hairstons from Reconstruction through the civil rights era, he paints a picture of the declining fortunes of the descendants of the slave master and the rise and wisdom of the descendants of the slaves. And yet the name itself is treasured among both family branches, and some of the white descendants can't resist the desire to make contact with the other branch. Commonalities emerge among black and white Hairstons; earnest, if partial, gestures of reconciliation are made. Throughout, Wiencek writes without sentimentality but with great feeling. "I heard history," he writes, "not as a historian would write it but as a novelist would imagine it.... I felt all the moral confusion of a spy." Maps, photographs and extended family trees not seen by PW.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 361 pages
  • Publisher: St Martins Pr; 1st edition (February 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312192770
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312192778
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (65 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #753,157 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Renee Tietjen on November 29, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Debra Green on May 12, 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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27 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on January 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
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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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on December 31, 2003
Format: Paperback
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.
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