After my presentation and reading from “A Partial Sun” at Book No Further in downtown Roanoke on Saturday, December 7th, 2019, Ann and I and our daughter Haley walked up through the Farmers’ Market, and stepped into a little bakery to enjoy a pastry and tea (or in my case a steamer). Breaking from the flow of our conversation, Haley abruptly related for our benefit a remarkable dream of hers from the previous night. She had suddenly remembered this dream, she said, while she sat listening to me read from my novel. In this dream, Haley came to a white door, which was closed. She knocked on it and Nannie, dressed in white, opened the door. Nannie said, “I heard your Dad wrote a book.” When Haley affirmed this, Nannie said, “I’m so proud of him.”
Haley’s relating of this dream brought Ann nearly to tears, and I, too, felt my eyes grow moist. Why, you ask? Listen to the words of my dedication: “This book is fondly dedicated to the memory of Nannie B. Hairston (1921-2017) ‘Praise the Lord!’” Oh, how well I remember Nannnie! It was she who let me into Schaeffer Memorial Baptist Church one day in 1997 to see the painting of Captain Charles Schaeffer, the church’s founder, and from which I proposed to do his portrait sculpture. It was she who ever after recalled, with a laugh, my spontaneous exclamation at seeing this painting: “he’s white!” It was she, and her good friend Lois Teele, who came to my studio dressed in their Sunday best to see, and warmly approve, my finished clay model of the Captain Schaeffer portrait bust; it was she who organized the fundraising campaign to raise the $5,000 necessary to have my clay model cast in bronze; and it was she who orchestrated the memorable unveiling ceremony and potluck dinner which followed.
Nannie had made such a deep impression on me by then that I resolved to do a portrait bust of her, as well, and so once again a committee was organized, a fundraising campaign was launched, with appeals to the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors to approve placement of her portrait bust in the Government Center Building in Christiansburg. Never will I forget modelling her from life, at her house at 2000 Sunset Drive in Christiansburg, with her ailing husband John behind me in his recliner. As I fashioned in clay the features of her face and the particular curl of her hair, Nannie related to me what it had been like for she and John and their small children to uproot from their life in West Virginia and John’s employment in the coal mines, to settle in Southwest Virginia so that John could begin work at the Radford Arsenal in 1953. “As bad as Mississippi,” Nannie said, and then described examples of the innumerable indignities, slights, and outright discrimination she and her family had to deal with in the Jim Crow era prior to the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s. But rather than simply suffer these affronts, or react in anger, she and her husband John methodically addressed them, seeking simple changes, where this was possible. Their watchword was a saying her mother had repeated over and over: “you can never overcome hate with hate, you can only overcome hate with love.”
Nevertheless, she was, as the saying goes, a force to be reckoned with. This was apparent in the way she presented herself on public occasions: queenly. Thus, when she was chosen for a Strong Men and Women in Virginia History award--an award dedicated to the recognition of African-American leaders--she came to the banquet in Richmond dressed in black and gold, and fairly glittered when she stepped to the podium. And for her departure from this earth, in July, 2017 at age 95, she likewise had chosen, with great care I am sure, queenly costume, this time all white, with jewelry to match. How well I remember seeing her in the cushioned casket and thinking, “this is the last time I will ever see Nannie.”
Fortunately, I had an opportunity to publicly express my deep appreciation of her at a ceremony beautifully orchestrated by June Sayers of Christiansburg Library, which you can view here:
So now, perhaps, you can begin to understand the impact on me of our daughter Haley’s dream, which she related to us in that little bakery in Roanoke on January 7th, 2019: “I am so proud of you.”