Coming to the Table to Address America’s Racial Divide

A daughter of slavery and a son of the slave trade embark on a journey of discovery and healing, finding out that family reunions can confront the legacy of slavery and racism head-on.

Gather at the Table cover

“Gather at the Table” is the chronicle of Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan’s journey through the unhealed wounds of slavery. As DeWolf and Morgan demonstrate, before we can overcome racism we must first acknowledge and understand the damage inherited from the past—which invariably involves confronting painful truths.

Cover Courtesy Beacon Press

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Sharon Leslie Morgan, a descendent of slaves on both sides of her family, began a journey toward bridging a racial divide with Thomas Norman DeWolf, a white man from rural Oregon who descends from the largest slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history. The two spent time with one another’s families and friends and engaged in deep conversations about how the lingering trauma of slavery shaped their lives. After three years, they put this experience into a book, Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012). In the following excerpt, read about a family reunion that crosses color lines—an inspiration for this journey and the starting point of the organization Coming to the Table. 

Will Hairston is a white man who descends from one of the largest slaveholding empires in the Old South. The story of his family’s complex web of relationships over many generations, from being slave owners through the recent past, is told in Henry Wiencek’s book The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White.

When he was eighteen years old, Will attended the annual family reunion of the “Hairston Clan,” an eight-hundred-person-strong gathering of an African American family with roots in the South and a direct connection to Will. The Hairstons have been convening family reunions since 1931. In 1980, they invited Waller Staples Hairston, Will’s father, to join them as their guest speaker at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Washington, DC. Will accompanied his father.

Waller Hairston descended from a dynasty that, at its height, controlled nine plantations—encompassing upwards of forty farms—stretching from the tidewaters of Virginia to the backwoods of Mississippi. Many thousands of African American people worked their lands as slaves, making them one of the richest families in the antebellum South.

It was only recently that black and white Hairstons would have gathered for such an affair. It is a story that few from the family’s storied past would have ever believed possible.

Seventy-nine-year-old Jester Hairston, the noted composer, songwriter, and actor, was there. He led the singing of his song, Amen, made famous in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field. Will was transformed. The experience of the reunion, of being with the descendants of people his ancestors had once enslaved, of being welcomed and accepted there, changed his life. He witnessed the power of song, of coming together, and of connection with a family much larger than he had ever known.

And then there is Susan Hutchison. Susan is the six-times-greatgranddaughter of President Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha. In 2003, after exploring her family history—and its deep connection to slavery—she attended an unlikely family reunion as well. Hers was with the descendants of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the woman he enslaved on his Monticello plantation and who bore several of his children. At the reunion, Susan met Henry Wiencek. Having experienced the power of reunion, she told him she wanted to meet other white descendants of families who had enslaved people. Henry introduced Susan to Will. Together, they came up with the idea of a family reunion that was vastly different from what most people are accustomed to. It would not be a meeting of just one family. It would be a reunion that involved multiple families from both sides of the racial construct; a reunion of black and white—the descendants of people who were slaveholders with the descendants of those whom they had enslaved. Their idea was based on one key acknowledgment: Be they black, white or mixed, families are families.

America’s legacy of slavery ripped apart untold numbers of family bonds. Not only were African American families broken; white families were estranged as well. From the time slavery was instituted in the United States, black and white generations had lived and died together. They often had children together. But there was profound alienation on both sides of the racial divide. Far too many white Americans were in denial, believing that the wounds of the past had been healed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

To begin understanding the impact of slavery, one must consider F. George Kay’s words in his book The Shameful Trade: “The purchase or capture of some fifty million human beings month in and month out [over] a period of four centuries was perhaps the greatest crime against humanity ever perpetrated by Christendom, not least because those responsible for the most part saw no moral evil in treating men, women, and children as merchandise.”

Susan and Will saw building relationships with the “other side” as a path toward a future where the deep wounds engendered by slavery could be confronted and potentially reconciled. They were inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, spoken from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963: “I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”

Fired with resolve, Will and Susan invited their cousins to share another observation made by Dr. King: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” Under their leadership, black and white Jeffersons and Hairstons began planning a revolution. A group now known as Coming to the Table was born.

An experience was planned in which black and white descendants of ancestors linked by a slave/slave-owner relationship, a blood connection, or both could explore the history of slavery—its legacy and impact on their lives. They had a longer-term goal to create a model of healing to guide individuals and groups that continue to struggle with racism in the United States and throughout the world.

Forty-two years after Dr. King shared his dream, two dozen descendants from both sides of the system of enslavement gathered at the table.

That first small retreat took place in January 2006 at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where Will works. Through sharing stories and building relationships, the participants embraced King’s dream: They began to envision a more connected and truthful society that would be eager to address the unresolved and persistent effects of the institution of slavery.

From the beginning, EMU supported the work of Coming to the Table. It fit well with the university’s peacebuilding mission. It adopted the program, designated a manager, and sought funding. Two and a half years later, the university’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding offered an official weeklong “Coming to the Table” course of study as part of the Summer Peacebuilding Institute. We both attended. It opened the doorway to our collaboration and profoundly affected both our lives.

Excerpt from Gather at the Table by Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan. Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Norman DeWolf and Sharon Leslie Morgan. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.