A Brief History
“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 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.
“Will was transformed. The experience of the reunion, of being with the descendants of the 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-great-granddaughter 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.”
“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 in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where Will worked. 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.”1
Amy Potter Czajkowski, who was on the staff of The Center for Justice & Peacebuilding at EMU, nurtured the program and obtained grant funding. Amy and David Anderson Hooker, consulting with other experts and CTTT members, developed our Coming to the Table approach and model. They led trainings in what we now call Transforming Historical Harms (THH). You can download a free copy of our THH manual from the CTTT Guides & Case Studies page under the Resources tab above.
With support from The Fetzer Institute and the Kellogg Foundation, Coming to the Table funded several projects in line with our Mission, Vision, and Approach.
- Writing a New History saw eighteen young people led on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage tour through Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama.
- In Seattle, the first regional CTTT group was formed. New Legacy Puget Sound organized a six-week series of classes called “Healing Together” focused on genealogical research, storytelling, supportive sharing, learning and dealing with the strong emotions that accompany discussions of race.
- Bridging the Gap is a story about black and white “linked” descendants meeting together at a family reunion in Mississippi.
Major grant funding from Fetzer and Kellogg concluded in March 2012, coinciding with an inspiring National Gathering in Richmond, VA, March 15 -18, 2012. CTTT became an LLC in the state of Virginia in 2015, and remains closely affiliated with EMU, which provides us with our non-profit status, processes our donations, does our accounting, and provides Information Technology, communications support, and other services. We are a self-managed community, led by Board members spread all over the United States who meet monthly by phone or video conference. We have committees to address Community Activities, Partnerships, Fundraising, Finance, and Communications.
You can join other members who participate in a host of online activities, including a Ning-based private social network (click on the “join our online community” link on the right side of this page), a YouTube page, a Facebook group, and Twitter account. Among our many other activities, we also:
- host monthly conference calls on a variety of subjects
- recent calls have included discussions with authors and filmmakers, sharing stories, voter I.D. laws, genealogy, restorative justice, the legacy of lynching, and nurturing intra-racial relationships
- plan and host periodic National Gatherings
- help start and support local CTTT gathering groups
- work with faith-based and other groups to address racism
- help people with genealogical research
- support “linked descendants”
Ongoing partnerships include support for preservation of former slave dwellings. The Slave Dwelling Project is led by Joseph McGill. Several members present the CTTT story nationally and locally from both sides of the racial divide as Betty Kilby Baldwin and Phoebe Kilby do. CTTT inspired the book Gather at the Table (Beacon Press, 2012), which 2012 Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee calls “an honest exploration into the deep social wounds left by racism, violence and injustice.”
The Future of CTTT
Many future activities are planned for CTTT, including:
- National Gatherings have been held in 2012, 2014, and 2016. More to come!
- Our first Leadership Training Institute was held in June 2016. More to come!
- A documentary film showing how our approach can be put into action
- Organizing events around important dates in history (like the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and “I have a dream” speech; Juneteenth, Emancipation Proclamation, and others)
- Compilation of written stories from CTTT members
- Partnerships to take positive Action with like-minded organizations
We have several local/regional gathering groups, where CTTT members meet in person. These have formed and developed organically, wherever there were CTTT members who wanted to form them, including in Seattle, San Francisco area, the Mid-Atlantic Region, Virginia’s Eastern Shore, New York City, Southern California, Washington, DC, Annapolis, MD, and the Triangle area of North Carolina.
If you are interested in serving on a committee, want to know more about CTTT activities, would like information about existing regional groups, or are interested in starting a new one in your area, please contact CTTT Executive Director Tom DeWolf here or call (877) 540-2888.
1 – Excerpt from Gather at the Table (Beacon Press, 2012), by Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf. Thanks to Jane Feldman for group photo from 2016 National Gathering.