One of the things that struck me in America was the importance of history, and seeing how the events of the past still has effects today.
“The fact that the white descendants of white slave masters accept us, and they recognize that we have a common ancestry — that’s an opening,” said Hairston, a retired Army officer who lives in Washington. One of his maternal ancestors was a slave of Hairston planters in North Carolina.
From Thursday through Saturday, 20 descendants of slaves, slave owners and slave traders gathered at Eastern Mennonite University for “Coming to the Table,” a conference that featured storytelling, interviews, presentations and reflections on the institution whose legacy continues to shadow race relations.
Hairston, 83, said sitting down as equals with the families who generations ago held his in bondage shows how far the nation has come. He recalled that when he first joined the Army, he couldn’t be promoted from second lieutenant because a higher rank would have elevated him above whites. Blacks have since have occupied the highest positions of the military and the government, he noted.
“While some people look back and see how bad it was, and forget how good it’s getting to be, I want to forget the past and focus on the future,” Hairston said. “And the future is, we are becoming one people.”
Several plantations in the South now hold reunions for descendants of slaves and of their masters. Organizers of the Eastern Mennonite conference want to inspire more gatherings of several families at a time.
“I see it as a movement that’s going on and that we’re trying to provide leadership and encouragement for,” said William Hairston of Harrisonburg, whose ancestors were a prominent slave-owning clan. He has both white and black relatives.
His family’s tree branches and their origins are detailed in Henry Wiencek’s 2000 book, “The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White.”
Members of the two sides of Hairstons have been in regular contact since the 1970s. For a decade, William Hairston considered the idea of bringing together both sides of descendants from several plantations.
The idea received a boost from an unlikely place: Monticello, scene of bitter relations between some descendants of Thomas Jefferson and some descendants of his slave, Sally Hemings.
DNA linked at least one of Hemings’ children to the Jefferson clan, and many historians have concluded that the Founding Father and plantation owner likely fathered at least one and possibly all six of Hemings’ children listed in Monticello records.
Still, most members of the Monticello Association, the organization of Jefferson descendants eligible for burial on the Albemarle County estate, considered the evidence inconclusive and have denied membership to the Hemings descendants.
Susan Hutchison, a dissenting association member frustrated by the decision, found inspiration in the more cordial contact among the Hairstons. She sought out the author of “The Hairstons,” who put her in touch with William Hairston, she said. “I wanted to meet other white descendants of slave owners, interested in supporting one another as we face our history together,” she said.
Hairston enlisted EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Amy Potter, of the center’s Practice Institute, found money from the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo, Mich., to organize the Harrisonburg meeting, Potter said.
The meeting could set an example for others who trace their family roots to a plantation, Potter said.
“If there are people who are wondering how do we even explore that part of our history and make that connection, there’ll be several examples,” she said.
Diana Redman, a Hemings descendant who lives in Columbus, Ohio, said the weekend helped foster ties between the Hemings and Jefferson lines. Some descendants from both families have been getting acquainted in the past several years.
“The primary thing that happened for us is we had descendants of Thomas Jefferson come to the table in the sense of brotherhood and healing,” Redman said.
After the three days of closed-door conferences, attendees gathered for a candlelight memorial service at Zenda, the Rockingham County hamlet northeast of Harrisonburg where freed slaves settled and founded a thriving community. The conference concluded with a banquet at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg.
Bringing together people who trace their lineage to plantation fields and to the owner’s mansions strikes at the core of racism in the country, said Melody Pannell, a Harrisonburg resident who helped organize the conference.
“We could talk about the honest things that did happen in our families and in America . . . but also how we can build bridges together and take that out into society,” Pannell said.
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