CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Bill Hairston doesn't need a special month to honor black history. He celebrates the black experience every day of his life.
Known statewide as a musician, singer and folklorist, he uses storytelling and song to promote African-American contributions to our Appalachian culture.
The stories spring from his upbringing in segregated Alabama and a place called Lick Skillet in rural St. Albans.
One of only two blacks in his 4-H group, he wound up in the West Virginia 4-H Hall of Fame. In the turbulent 1960s, he helped integrate Rock Lake Pool.
For years, even as a six-figure Allstate insurance agent, he searched for his true calling.
He found it as a Presbyterian pastor and outreach director with the Religious Coalition for Community Renewal housing program.
At 63, he exudes a certain radiance, the happy glow of a proud black West Virginian.
"I spent some interesting years in very segregated Alabama. I grew up in a protected family in Phenix City. My uncle and grandfather were Methodist pastors in the community, so we were looked at as good people.
"There was a movie theater in Phenix City and one in Columbus, Ga. Blacks sat in the balcony. I experienced that, and the water fountains and name-calling, but that was infrequent because I lived in such a segregated community. You stayed away from those folks.
"My parents were interested in two things: Us having a positive self-image and not being hurt by the white community. A lot of that had to do with the Christian upbringing. You forgive people. I can't ever remember being angry.
"I do remember my father having to go to the hospital. We went through this nice, pretty lobby, and when we got back to where he was, it was a dingy, horrible place. That happened here at Kanawha Valley Hospital, too. The blacks had the worst rooms in a segregated hospital.
"I knew there would be something better along the way. I was quite familiar with Martin Luther King, the bombings and deaths. All that was a part of my life, but as a religious person, I always saw that things were going to work out for me.
"My father was a professional soldier. He was from McDowell County, Elkhorn. He decided to retire. He walked in the room one day and said, 'We are going home to West Virginia.'
"He brought us to St. Albans, out on Coal River. Back in 1960, that was a very rural place. We ended up in what you might call west St. Albans. Lick Skillet was the name of the community.
"We were one of two black families. It was pretty much just rural white river folks, very working class. That's where I got my interest in music. I started playing instruments as a result of living on Coal River.
"I had to deal with going from segregation to integration. That was a little bit of a challenge. At St. Albans Junior High School, I was the only black person in the classroom.
"It was interesting. There was a girl in our room that everybody picked on. They would throw things at her and call her names. I thought that was horrible, but I was scared to say anything because if they don't have her, there I am. I managed to make it through those times.
"One of the things that helped me a lot was 4-H. I was one of two blacks in the group of about 30 kids at Lick Skillet.
"I became a leader. That's where I learned to speak in public, to sit down and work out projects. I eventually ended up in the West Virginia 4-H Hall of Fame, one of the original inductees.
"My parents worked in Charleston, so we moved to the West Side of Charleston during the school year and I went to Stonewall.
"In 1967, I was chosen as one of three delegates to the national 4-H conference in Washington. There were probably 200 kids there. They needed three kids to represent the group and have tea with Lady Bird Johnson. They said, 'You. The kid from West Virginia. You be one of them.'