Between 1966 and 1985, six talented and determined young women left an indelible mark on Berea College. For these African-American, Christian sisters from Williamson, W.Va., Berea’s commitments to interracial education, Christian values, hard work and service were a beacon of light and opportunity that radically changed their family’s future. The Hairston sisters embody the values and mission of the College. And today, between marriages to alumni and a couple of children who also attended Berea, family gatherings bring together 12 dedicated and grateful alumni.
In the early 20th century, the sisters’ father, Elbert Hairston, and his brother, John, left their home in Pine Hall, N.C. to continue their education. With their parents’ blessing and great sacrifice, Elbert and John attended and graduated from Slater Industrial and State Normal School. In search of work and a better life, the brothers set off for Williamson, W.Va. Elbert took a job with the railroad, putting his dream of becoming a doctor on hold so his older brother could attend seminary.
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Years later Elbert met Zada Stowe, a beautiful North Carolina native who shared his passion for education. In fact, Zada refused to marry Elbert until he promised her she would be able to complete her education. The two married and began their family. They built a Christian home filled with love, rooted in service and overflowing with expectation for their seven children.
“Daddy never did go back to college, but he always wanted to,” said Cynthia Hairston Hicks ’79, the Hairston’s fifth daughter. “Mama always valued education. She held onto that dream for years.”
The Hairstons made a life for themselves in thriving Williamson. The integrated community was bursting with young families from all over the country and the world. Active in the community, the two attended PTA meetings at the newly-integrated school. They were charter members of the NAACP in the turbulent 1950s and 60s. They actively worked for equality and social change and taught their children that the real key to social change was love.
They served in their church. The Hairston children sang in the Junior Choir, performed in holiday programs and participated in oratorical competitions. The Hairstons sacrificed to provide piano lessons for each of their children, creating a home filled with music and joy.
The Hairston sisters brought their talent for music to Berea. All six sang in the Chapel Choir. The oldest sister, Willene, was the founding director of the Black Ensemble, now called the Black Music Ensemble, which carries on a rich tradition of gospel and spiritual music at the College to this day. Music was integral to their college experiences, and they left a legacy of excellence.
“They were pioneers,” said Dr. Stephen Bolster, Concert Choir director. “The Hairstons did a lot to promote integration of the College’s music programs and love of all people. They exemplify that in their lives, and the humility and grace with which they do it is remarkable.”