Descendents Gather to Heal Wounds of Slavery

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On a winter weekend in Virginia, the descendants of slaves, slave owners and slave traders came together for a long weekend of sharing and reconciliation. They called their conference "Coming to the Table." Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

In 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. said he dreamed that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners would sit down together at the table of brotherhood. Well, that dream became a reality at a recent winter weekend when the descendents of slaves, slave owners and slave traders gathered in Virginia for a conference they called "Coming to the Table." Nancy Marshall Genzer reports.

NANCY MARSHALL GENZER reporting: It all began with two sets of families with deep roots in slavery, descendents of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings and the Hairston's who owned thousands of slaves on two huge plantations, one in Virginia and the other in North Carolina. Will Hairston, a descendent of the white slave owners had been going to family reunions with the African-American side of the Hairston clan for more than a decade, but he wanted to take the next step, to bring the descendants of several families together. Hairston says the reunions helped clear the air and helped him deal with his guilt.

Mr. WILL HAIRSTON (Family of Former Slave Owners): Guilt is the glue that holds racism together. And that actually lessens the chance of you having a healthy relationship with a person of a different ethnic background. So it's like overcoming guilt is a real struggle. But now I sort of see that what I feel is important is to have hope, more hope than guilt.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Hairston works as a ground supervisor at the Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and the University's Center for Justice and Peace Building agreed to host the conference. In attendance, about 20 descendents of slaves, slave owners and traders, including Everlee(ph) Hairston, whose great grandparents were among the thousands of Hairston slaves.

And there was Holly Fulton, a descendent of slave traders. She and the other came for a long weekend of storytelling, sharing and one-on-one encounters. On the last full day, the participants horse around for a group picture.

Unidentified: On the count of three say, coming to the table, one, two, three.

Group: Coming to the table.

MARSHALL-GENZER: But the break for the picture is short, and the group quickly goes back to the difficult business of reconciliation. Shay(ph) Banks-Young of the Jefferson-Hemmings family, stands up and leads an exercise, asking all to imagine they're a proud African kidnapped and sold as a slave. Then Will Hairston stands up and surprises everyone with this statement.

Mr. HAIRSTON: I apologize and ask your forgiveness for my ancestors' involvement in slavery that deprived your ancestors of their liberty. I thank you for letting me come into your life, close enough to give you this apology. Thank you for coming to the table with me. (crying)

MARSHALL-GENZER: Will Hairston is immediately hugged by four slave descendents, including Everlee Hairston. She says her one time anger at the white Hairstons is long gone, and she's touched by the apology.

Ms. EVERLEE HAIRSTON (Family of Former Slaves): I was thinking, I've already forgiven him. It isn't necessary. But it's not about me, it's about him. And now the healing process can take place. So when he finished, I walked over to him and said, I love you for who you are. And I mean, we just embraced so tightly. It was beautiful.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Will Hairston says he's winning the battle with his guilt. It's not so easy for Holly Fulton, the Denver high school French teacher whose ancestors ran a slave trading business out of Bristol, Rhode Island.

Fulton says the hardest part of the conference for her was when everyone trekked out to a church built by freed slaves for a memorial ceremony. The group murmured ancestors' names, lit candles and sang in their army.

Unidentified Woman: William T. and Charmaine(ph) Ruth Hairston.

(Soundbite of song 'Amen')

Group: (Singing): Amen, talking with the Father.

MARSHALL-GENZER: But Fulton was consumed by guilt.

Ms. HOLLY FULTON (Descendent of Former Slave Traders): Everybody was asked to come up with a name of an ancestor that they wanted to honor. Of course, for the blacks, no problem. I mean, they probably had a ton of names, and I couldn't come up with anybody, and that made me, and makes me sad.

MARSHALL-GENZER: But Fulton says she was encouraged by the attitude of those around her. Shannon Lanier is a Jefferson Hemmings descendent who grew up in a family he describes as a rainbow. He says he chose to attend the conference because he wanted his family to be part of the solution, not the problem. And he was somewhat surprised by the guilt Fulton and others expressed.

Mr. SHANNON LANIER (Family of Former Slaves): They did not enslave me. They did not hold my family members captive. It was the ancestors. I can't blame someone currently living today for something that their ancestors had a part in, because that person here today did not it.

MARSHALL-GENZER: Conference organizer, Will Hairston says that kind of conciliatory language between blacks and whites is rare, because both races avoid the topic of slavery. Hairston says he wants to continue bringing the descendents of slaves and slaveholders together to honor the dream Martin Luther King, Jr. didn't live long enough to fulfill.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer.

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