New York filmmaker and Emmy-nominated editor Princess Hairston spent time in Stokes County over the weekend to continue research for her feature-length documentary titled “Tracing the Hairstons” and showed a short clip of its progress at The Arts Place of Stokes in Danbury on Sunday afternoon.
The documentary delves into the Hairston families, who owned dozens of plantations and thousands of slaves. Princess is part of the descendants of those slaves who are scattered across the United States.
She began the project four years ago and has traveled through Virginia, North Carolina, California, Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey and plans to visit Mississippi and Ohio before finishing production later this year.
“The main intent for the film is to let people see these intimate stories and start to feel comfortable opening up about racial issues,” she said. “My father moved to New York after high school, but we would always go to his hometown in Basset, Virginia and visit my grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. I was always intrigued by my last name. It was weird in New York, but seemed so common everywhere else.”
As a child, while in Virginia, she recalled seeing businesses with her last name on the storefront, piquing her interest even further.
“When I was there, I’d search through the phonebook, it was an actual book back then, and there were pages of the Hairston name. It was fascinating to me.”
Making the documentary has been bittersweet for the filmmaker.
She learned of Jester Hairston, the first African-American to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Joe Henry Hairston, who fought to rise through the ranks in World War II. There were also difficult stories to tell.
She met Everlee Hairston, a descendant of John Goolsby, raised in a log cabin in the Cooleemee plantation in Davie County. Her grandparents were house servants, her parents sharecroppers, and Everlee desperately wanted to be in school. She resented the fact she missed weeks at a time working in the cotton fields. She left the plantation in 1959 to start a new life in New York as a housekeeper, a job held by 90 percent of African American women at the time.
While Everlee worked to support herself through college and went on to become a teacher, her family remained on the plantation until the early 1970s.
“Everlee’s story it interesting, but sad, especially for her family. They had a difficult life. The whole family slept in a slave cabin and that’s hard to hear,” Princess said.
The documentary includes candid conversations from the Stokes County Hairston families.
“I was thankful to be able to sit down with a lot of the older people and get their history about what was passed down to them. It’s a wonderful opportunity to be able to tell a historical story from both the black and white perspective. I felt it was very necessary to have a film from both voices because each represent America.”
Princess interviewed Stokes native 97-year-old Betty Hairston, who grew up on the Sauratown plantation.
“Her mother passed down amazing stories and she’s sharing those in our film and leaving her legacy,” Princess said.
The filmmaker found most Hairston family member to be receptive to the project, at least from the African American perspective.
“It’s hard for the white population; it’s hard for white America to speak about the part of history that involves slavery. We’ve never dealt with it properly.”
Princess gave the illustration of the Holocaust and said it’s easier to discuss those atrocities because there’s a certain detachment.
“But when I say slavery, people want to freeze up. I have white friends that don’t want to talk about it, but it’s a part of our history that needs to be discussed. There needs to be an open dialogue about race because there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Princess is hoping the film will be a catalyst for meaningful conversation.
“I remember asking my grandparents questions about what they went through. I knew they struggled. They told me to stop snooping around. I believe they didn’t want their kids and family to know about it because they saw a better life coming for us.”
But Princess is still asking questions and carefully recording responses.
“I love coming to this area and I love the people here. I wish I did see a little more change happening. I feel like the whites live on one side of town and the blacks on the other side. It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “But art has a way of bringing people together. I hope this project does that and we continue having important discussions about parts of history that need to be remembered.”
Amanda Dodson may be reached at 336-813-2426.