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Two Men, Different Races, Share Name and Unspoken History

September 4, 1995

``I have a dream that one day ... sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.″

_ Martin Luther King Jr., Aug. 28, 1963



Associated Press Writer

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) _ Darrell Hairston comes from a large, proud black family that holds big reunions and boasts relatives in more than a dozen states. Their motto: ``We call everybody cuz.″

That adage was put to the test when he began a fellowship at Eastern Mennonite University and got a friendly call from the head groundskeeper who shared the same last name _ a white man named Will Hairston.

As they spoke, the names and places common to their ancestry led them to an inescapable conclusion: Darrell Hairston’s ancestors were slaves owned by Will Hairston’s forebears.

``There was a certain amount of anger in me,″ Darrell Hairston said of his initial reaction. ``Slavery, and all that it means is not very pretty.″

So when Will Hairston suggested the two meet and talk further, Darrell Hairston balked. But Will persisted. Confused, Darrell consulted relatives, his boss in the university’s Office of Multicultural Affairs where he has a yearlong fellowship, and his Baptist pastor back home in Martinsville.

Darrell eventually decided the meeting was a chance for rare, if painful personal insight. They met at a campus sandwich shop.

``I was worried,″ Will Hairston said. ``I had the feeling, `Is he going to be angry? Is he going to be resentful?′ I can see how he would be.″

And Will was nervous about his own reaction. ``I didn’t know if I’d be able to sit down and not be overcome by guilt.″

The men were uncomfortable at first but were drawn together by their common history. Weeks passed and they decided to meet again and again.

After several informal talks and research on both sides, the two decided to present their story to the campus at a prayer service.

Both families are rooted in the tobacco-growing Southside region of Virginia around Oak Hill. At the onset of the Civil War, Will Hairston’s great-great-great-grandfather, Samuel Hairston, owned 1,600 slaves who tended his family’s various farms.

After the war, Darrell’s ancestors took their names from their erstwhile masters, as did thousands of other newly emancipated slaves.

Will, 34, and Darrell Hairston, 25, have not pinpointed a blood relation, but they believe that link is inevitable, given the frequency of slave-slaveholder unions.

``There’s no doubt in my mind we’re cousins,″ Darrell Hairston said. ``We may be 17th cousins, or we may be 25th, but it’s there somewhere.″

It is not uncommon, especially in smaller Southern towns, for blacks and whites to share a name and an unspoken history.

But it is rare for either blacks or whites to put that relationship under a microscope, said Ervin Jordan, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of a book on blacks in Civil War-era Virginia.

``These incidents always raise an interesting question, which is why there aren’t more cases like this,″ said Jordan, who is black. ``There is denial on both sides. Many African-Americans really are not interested in tracing their lineage back to particular slaves or a particular plantation. Slavery is still a very painful subject.″

Though Darrell and Will Hairston have not ignored the pain of their ancestral past, they have put it aside. When the black Hairstons hold another reunion, the two men plan to attend together.

``It may seem unusual to some people, but I know I would be welcome,″ Will Hairston said. ``We have a lot stronger family ties than a lot of families do, white or black. ... When we look at where we came from, we’re both digging in the same place.″

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