Folklorist celebrates black-Appalachian heritage
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.'
"We went to the White House. We were having tea with Lady Bird, and her husband walked in the room. That was probably the greatest day in my life at that point. He remembered my name. He said if I ever needed anything to contact him. Yeah. Right.
"One of the stories I tell is about Rock Lake Pool. We were there to integrate that pool. Bernard Hawkins met with a group of kids and said, 'We need to make this community aware of what is going on.'
"So I went over there and I was hosed by the owners of Rock Lake Pool. They closed it down rather than integrate it. They opened back up later and everybody was a part of it. It served a purpose. It woke up a lot of people about what was going on.
"When I got to Glenville State College, the folks in town wanted you to understand your heritage and be a part of it. Coming out of Alabama to West Virginia, I started identifying with that black heritage I brought with me.
"There were only six other black students, so we were still in integrative mode. My life has been in integrative mode all the way through.
"I had some medical issues and had to leave Glenville. I got in debt and couldn't go back to school. I had a bunch of different jobs. I ended up at the old Memorial Hospital as a financial counselor, and I would go to classes at Morris Harvey [now the University of Charleston]. Slowly but surely, I got my degree in sociology.
"Most of my career was with Allstate insurance. I did really well, made Million Dollar Roundtable and everything. But I didn't feel fulfilled. I just knew there was some calling somewhere.
"I formed W.I. Hairston and Associates, a group that did all kinds of work with nonprofit organizations. We worked for the Children's Therapy Clinic, changing the structure and everything about it.
"Shawnee Hills took it over and thus took over me. I became the foundation director at Shawnee Hills. I worked for John Barnette, and he was asked to leave. I was trying to keep everybody calm about their jobs. Who's going to fire a foundation director? I was one of the first to go.
"It was shocking to me. Two weeks later, I was with the West Virginia Coalition on Food and Nutrition. Then the Commission on Religion in Appalachia came along, and I started feeling I was where I should be. I stayed with the commission until I came here for a part-time six-month position. That was 12 years ago.
"I'm the outreach director. I get people to understand what programs there are for the homeless in our three-county area. We are sponsored by 34 congregations, including both Jewish synagogues, Pentecostals and Presbyterians.
"Our major goal is housing. We have the Samaritan Inn for homeless men who are committed to changing. We have Smith Street Station that provides low-income rental for people who would have problems finding a decent place to live because of, say, a prison record.
"We have senior citizen places. We build homes for low-income people and educate low-income people on how to become homeowners. I am able to help somebody every day in some way.
"In this search for my calling, I became a pulpit supply person for Methodists and Presbyterians. If your pastor was leaving for a few weeks or even one Sunday, I was the one they asked to come fill the slot.
"I went to Westminster Presbyterian as an interim pastor for about six months and again for nine months. Three years ago, they finally came to me and said, 'You are the one.'
"So I am outreach director here and pastor at Westminster. And I am still doing my storytelling. That started in the early '70s. I was asked to go to a school in Gassaway. The program I started with was 'We Are One' where we look at the cultures of blacks and Appalachians. The stories were pretty much about me growing up black.
"Little by little, I got involved with all kinds of storytelling groups. I'm one of the founders of the West Virginia Storytelling Guild.
"I have an adult group of stories about growing up on Coal River, both made up and true stories of experiences I had. I'm all over the state.
"I am very proud of two things in my life: Growing up in West Virginia and being black. They were both very rich and unique things, and they both carry a lot of powerful pride. We are what we are: black West Virginians.
"I play my autoharp and do all my music stuff. I do traditional mountain music and black gospel and classical. I'm part of the Martin Luther King Junior Male Chorus.
"I love my congregation. I love my work here. I love the chorus. When I get up in the morning, I smile. That's because I have found that calling I was looking for back with Allstate when I just wasn't happy.
"At 63, not everything is perfect, but I thank the Lord I have this life and that I am able to give, including the music we do. I have a good time." Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.