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Publisher's Summary

As the country enters a new era of conversations around race and the enduring impact of slavery, The Hairstons traces the rise and fall of the largest slaveholding family in the Old South as its descendants - both black and white - grapple with the twisted legacy of their past.

Spanning two centuries of one family’s history, The Hairstons tells the extraordinary story of the Hairston clan, once the wealthiest family in the Old South and the largest slaveholder in America. With several thousand black and white members, the Hairstons of today share a complex and compelling history: divided in the time of slavery, they have come to embrace their past as one family.

For seven years, journalist Henry Wiencek combed the far-reaching branches of the Hairston family tree to piece together a family history that involves the experiences of both plantation owners and their slaves. Crisscrossing the old plantation country of Virginia, North Carolina, and Mississippi, The Hairstons reconstructs the triumphant rise of the remarkable children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the enslaved as they fought to take their rightful place in mainstream America. It also follows the white descendants through the decline and fall of the Old South, and uncovers the hidden history of slavery's curse - and how that curse followed slaveholders for generations.

Expertly weaving stories of horror, tragedy, and heroism, The Hairstons addresses our nation’s attempt to untangle the twisted legacy of the past, and provides a transcendent account of the human power to overcome.

©1999 Henry Wiencek. (P)2020 Brilliance Publishing, Inc., all rights reserved.

Critic Reviews

“Not since Mary Chestnut's Civil War has nonfiction about the South been as compelling as fiction.” (Time)

"Wiencek, who has written for Smithsonian and American Heritage magazines, has spent eight years unraveling the mystery of the Hairstons (pronounced Harston), said to be 'the largest family in America.' What Wiencek has turned up is nothing if not intriguing, including aspects which are worthy of further exploration.... Amid these huge plantations, for example, are unacknowledged children of their masters who become enslaved butlers, servants, and housekeepers, or children who were forced to keep their mother's maiden name to disguise their heritage.... [An] eerily fascinating account.” (Kirkus Reviews

“Wiencek's lovingly detailed history of the complicated relationships among the various strains of this huge, tragically divided Old South family has been called a metaphor for the nation, but a more accurate description would lie in the words of Robert Penn Warren, who said, 'The past is never past.'” (The Dallas Morning News)

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  • Tracy Hardy
  • 13-02-21

An incredible piece of work

An incredible piece of work, so interesting. I feel that I know these people, I feel humbled by their story