A Crumbled Dynasty

1 May 2013

GUEST BLOG by Diana Roman

I can still smell the musty pages of one of my mother’s most cherished possessions — the family bibles. They were among the few items she had left from a crumbled dynasty. On the frontal pages, the matriarch of the time would chronicle the lives of family members after their passing.  (The Hairston family seemed to have a regular practice of recording endless details of their lives.)

I knew my mother, Sallie Staples Hunt Hairston, was born in the countryside of Virginia, and I knew her family had a long-standing history as the earliest settlers in Pittsylvania County. It was only recently that I learned the full scope of what the Hairston dynasty was and how it derived its wealth. 

My ancestors were among the wealthiest people of their time — not because they had the most money in the bank, but because they owned the most slaves in American history.  The sheer size and scope of their “business” boggles my mind. The Hairston family owned 42 plantations in three states and enslaved more than 10,000 people.

Oak Hill Plantation Mansion in Pittsylvania County, VA -- built in 1825 by Samuel Hairston

Oak Hill Plantation Mansion in Pittsylvania County, VA — built in 1825 by Samuel Hairston

I try to imagine “upbeat” scenarios of day-to-day plantation life and how my ancestors surely must have been “good” to their slaves — not like all the other “mean” slave owners.  But is there really such a thing as a benevolent master?

Five generations later, I struggle to comprehend what happened and how I feel in my heart to be connected to ancestors who did something I so totally abhor. 

In the final analysis, l can’t deny my connection, but what that engenders for me is a burning desire to do something “right.” I long to “reconcile” this inheritance so my children can inherit a different legacy.

I recently began to wonder if my ancestors chronicled the lives of their slaves with as much meticulous detail as they did themselves.  Amazingly, I found that they did. They recorded all of the marriages, deaths and births of the 10,000+ people they enslaved in ledgers that span a 200 year period of history.

Once I got over the ugliness, I realized that these ledgers are a gold mine of genealogy.  While the Hairston family was among the biggest  sinners of slavery, their wealth allowed them the luxury of rarely selling slaves; which means they rarely broke up families. Their ledgers provide documentation that can help so many contemporary African American descendants discover their relationships – to people past and present.

I realize that the data in these ledgers may bring initial sadness to those descended from the people the Hairstons enslaved.  But I am hoping researchers will take faith in a lingering personal respect and admiration for those ancestors who were strong enough  to endure their predicament and continue against all odds to embrace the dream of a better life for their children – just as I do for my own.

Today, if you were to visit the land where the grand old mansion “Oak Hill” used to be, you would find an overgrown yard and a pile of bricks.  My mother never lived in the big old house, but rather in a makeshift log cabin built to house her family temporarily until the matriarch, her grandmother, died. I can’t help but consider it a blessing that she never lived the life she dreamed, of being heiress to a mansion built on the proceeds of slavery.  Rather, she grew up a poor country girl in the shadows of shame. 

Oak Hill mansion was burned down by vandals in 1988

Oak Hill mansion was burned down by vandals in 1988

It is my sincerest hope that my generation can reconcile the family “issue” of slavery.  I am on a mission to make the contents of the Hairston ledgers available online – through Our Black Ancestry. This is a history that belongs to us all. It is yours and mine; black and white; slave holder and enslaved. We have to name it and claim it in order to move forward.EVERYONE deserves to know from whence they came and it is my deepest desire to bring honor and respect to the lives of the people the Hairston family might have held in physical bondage but whose souls they never truly enslaved.

2 Responses to “A Crumbled Dynasty”

  1. Thank you for sharing ;the “wealth” and allowing light to shine on an era and times that any hide. With this comes healing, new “growth”, strength and bonding.

  2. AncesTrees said

    Love the name of your blog. Very meaningful.

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