Coming to the Table to Address America’s Racial Divide
A daughter of slaves and a son of slave-owners 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” 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
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.
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