Biography of John L. Hairston


Research from Henry Wiencek & Curated by Jennifer Martin

We will honor John L. Hairston during the Celebrating Courage Weekend August 11th & 12th. 

John L. was the seventh generation from the original Hairston settlers in the Walnut Cove/Pine Hall area. He went to great lengths to receive an education, even repeating the same grade a few times in the local school because it was the highest grade there and even as a young man Mr. Hairston had a passion for education.  

His education was interrupted for 12 years while he worked in the Brickyard to help take care of his family and John L. Hairston would go on to honorably serve his country in the United States Army in the 372nd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army for forty-four months.

During his service in World War II, Mr. Hairston married his childhood sweetheart, Ms. Ruth Anderson in 1942.  Mrs. Ruth Anderson herself was the Valedictorian of her high school class and they both would go on to earn college degrees:  Mr. Hairston from North Carolina A & T State University in Greensboro, North Carolina [NCAT] and Mrs. Ruth Hairston from Winston-Salem State University.

Mr. Hairston earned an engineering degree from NCAT with a minor in Math Education in 1951.   Although he was offered a job in New Jersey as an engineer where he would make much more money than he could in the segregated South the death of his grandmother kept Mr. Hairston in Pine Hall helping his family. 

This well-educated man ended up bagging groceries at the A & P in Greensboro. An offer came to him to teach math at the all-black London School in Walnut Cove. John L. took the job and taught for a while before being offered the engineering position in N.J. once more.

It would have paid twice as much money as he was making as a teacher but John L. Hairston remained dedicated to the development of educational opportunities for the children of African – American families including his three children; Ted, Tony, and Mona Lisa. Before long, John L. was principal of London School. Their three children would all go on to be college graduates and serve their communities in the spirit of their father. 

Although the nation had already passed desegregation laws, Stokes County schools were still segregated while Mr. Hairston was the principal of London High School. History was made when students from London School marched in protest down Main Street of Walnut Cove in 1968 when there was a push to close the London School. The march ended up fully integrating Walnut Cove and London High School became an elementary school; it became a grammar school, serving fifth through eighth graders of all races. Stokes County Schools became integrated.

John L. Hairston remained principal and served the State of North Carolina over the course of a forty-five-year career in education. While leading the way in education Mr. Hairston remained an active member of Pine Hall Baptist Church where he served as the head of the Deacon Board for thirty-five years, Building Fund Treasurer, Sunday School teacher, and the Sunday School Superintendent. As with their marriage and careers in education, his wife was by his side as the church pianist for four decades. John L. Hairston’s belief in service extended to his community where he was on the Board of Directors of the Yadkin Valley Economic Development District.  Among Mr. Hairston’s many charitable efforts was his fifteen years of service with the Stokes-Rockingham V.F.D. that he helped organize. Mr. Hairston was a member of the first County Planning Board and served on the Board of Directors of the East Stokes Outreach Ministry. Mr. Hairston received many awards, citations, and honors over his life; he remained most proud of The National Alumni Association of the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University for outstanding contributions to the desegregation of Stokes County Schools.

Brain Tumors: Inspiration Behind Organizing

Danielle and Caroline in 2014

Danielle and Caroline in 2014

May is Brain Tumor Awareness Month. I am sad to share that brain tumors in our community are way too common. They struck close to home for me, impacting people I dearly love. Brain tumors are the reason The Lilies Project exists. 

I have shared widely the story of how my friend Danielle’s diagnosis of a brain tumor led me to create Gray Matter, a sculptural book, during which I struggled with my faith and disbelief that she was going to be okay. Danielle’s second craniotomy was in August 2010. Years later, I realized this questioning was what led me to my coal ash advocacy work. 

After moving back to North Carolina in 2012, we learned my cousin Rick had a brain tumor. 

It did not take me as long to connect the dots with how we actually got organized at Belews Creek. I took a two-year hiatus from coal ash after Obama failed to classify coal ash as a hazardous material in November 2010. Instead I focused on building a playground in Downtown DC. When Rick fell in October 2012, I knew exactly what to do -- reach out to our local experts.

I contacted Dr. Avner Vengosh, a leading researcher on coal ash at Duke University. His paper at the time confirmed my suspicions that coal ash processed by the new scrubbers at Belews Creek Power Station resulted in higher concentrations of heavy metals and toxins in the local community. He put me in touch with Earthjustice. Lisa Evans then put me in touch with Appalachian Voices. And from there, we began organizing a full year before the Dan River Spill. Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup at Belews Creek. A couple of years later the statewide group Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash launched at Belews Creek, as well.

Needless to say, Rick’s brain tumor has been devastating on our family. But we are so grateful that his tumor is stable for five years now. Rick leads a full, healthy life, which includes returning to work full-time, long-distance running, bike races, and playing with his granddaughter, Ila. 

Danielle is missing a portion of her skull, even though she is cancer free. She is concerned about the risks associated with an additional surgery necessary to replace the bone, which is being stored.   Photo Credit: Facing South, At What Cost Video

Danielle is missing a portion of her skull, even though she is cancer free. She is concerned about the risks associated with an additional surgery necessary to replace the bone, which is being stored. Photo Credit: Facing South, At What Cost Video

In communities impacted by coal ash, there is no silver bullet to prove the elevated health concerns. Perhaps there’s a reason for that. But intertwined with the heart breaks and fears are hope and miracles. Danielle is cancer free. My prayer is to one day say the same for Rick. 


Ashes to Art: The Intersection of Art & Science

This past February, UNC School of Journalism students asked if I would be willing to be part of an Environmental Journalism class project. I said yes. In fact, I had just scheduled an interview with UNC's General Alumni Association Magazine and perhaps they can work together. I love the result. It really focuses on both the art and the science, over a lot of weighty information about coal ash. I also love the spirit that it captures, including the expression on Wade Brown's face in this opening shot. I always enjoy spending time with Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar and Wade, the scientists at A&T. Periodically we ponder over how to address the burden of coal ash in North Carolina and instead use it as a raw material in a safe manner. There is typically a lot of laughter and a few grimaces. 

Although I have been a coal ash advocate for a number of years, I am not scientific in the least. For years, I had nightmares of attending my first high school chemistry class on the day of the final exam. It didn't matter that I had already graduated from college and even earned my Masters. In my dreams, I could not drop the class. The nightmare reoccurred until recently when I began meeting with scientists at NC State A&T University.

I read a newspaper article that profiled their research into developing materials out of coal ash. I was thrilled. Progress to this monumental issue facing North Carolina is being made. But I never saw another article and the notion lingered with me. Eighteen months later, I reached out to Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar. We had a large problem in the community. I wanted to know if he could help us.

Upon meeting with Dr. Shivakumar and his research partner, Wade Brown, I learned they were unaware of the health impacts on the community. When I first saw the chair rail on the office desk, I said we would need billions of miles of this material to solve this problem. But both were eager to learn how they could help. As part of a learning institution, benefiting the greater community is part of the university’s mission. Dr. Shivakumar stated, “Once you learn of the problem, you can begin to address it.”

After our meeting, several of the researchers attend a few public hearings around coal ash and heard testimony from individuals living in the community. With a better understanding of the full problem, they were able to expand their focus from small building materials to include a safer storage method. This wider thinking also led to ideas that use up the coal ash on a much larger scale, like Department of Transportation applications.

The opportunity to incorporate art into our conversations has been humorous. At times, I present my ideas with hesitation. But recently, Shivakumar's advice was encouraging and altered my creative process and thinking with what our final main piece will look like.

Art has also been an easy way to draw in more people to the advocacy conversation. We had reached a ceiling of who was attending our meetings and struggling to gain more traction in an ongoing marathon of advocacy. But through music, films, and art, we can share the heavy scientific realities of what it means to live in close proximity to coal ash without scaring anyone away. As an artist, I am the first to admit that art was the missing link from our last five years of advocacy.

In college, I took a studio art class focused on Art & The Body. Perhaps through these driven conversations and a dental school prerequisite for 3D Studio Art, I always understood the connections between art and science. Somehow seemingly on opposite ends of one spectrum, they were intertwined from another vantage points. Both start with trying to answer a question. What's your question?

A special thanks to Alex Kormann for coordinating the development of this video and coming out to interview us. 

video by Hanna Davison and Alex Kormann
timelapse footage by Alexis Fairbanks