Eric Douglas Published

'Growing Up Black In Appalachia': How One Storyteller Is Changing The Narrative


W.I. “Bill” Hairston is a professional storyteller. He spins tales about a number of different topics  —  some made up and some real. 

During a recent talk at the West Virginia State University Economic Development Center on Charleston’s West Side he devoted his entire presentation to the topic “Growing Up Black in Appalachia.”

Hairston was originally born in Phenix City, Alabama in 1949. He describes the area of the town where he lived as being predominantly black. 

“My dentist was black. My teachers were black. The lawyers were black. The pharmacists were black  —  everybody was black,” he said. “White folks sort of showed up here and there, and they were in town, but they were in another part of town for one thing. And other than the mailman and the potato chip guy that came to the store and the store owner, we really didn’t see a lot of white folks on a regular basis.”

That all changed for Hairston when his father announced he was retiring from the military and they were moving to join Hairston’s grandfather in the predominantly white town of St. Albans, West Virginia. Hairston said his family was the only one of color in the area. 

As kids do, Hairston and his younger sister spent that first summer in West Virginia playing with the neighborhood kids. As summer came to an end, it was time for Hairston and his sister to go to school, and unbeknownst to them West Virginia’s schools were desegregated.

“We noticed that the little white kids that we played with all summer long were walking with us and we sort of said to ourselves, “Well, maybe, maybe they use the same bus stop.” And we got on the bus and right behind us came these white kids. We said, “Well, maybe they use the same bus,”” Hairston said.

Sixty years later Hairston considers himself a West Virginian, and although he said he has faced racism, it is because of those difficult experiences that he became a storyteller. He added that growing up storytelling was a form of entertainment.

“It goes all the way back to St. Albans. People would just sort of sit on their porch and share all kinds of stories,” he said. 

For his last two years of high school, Hairston moved to Charleston’s West Side. 

“There was a place right over here. There was a VFW club with a big ol’ oak tree outside. On Saturday night, the men would gather there,” he said. “As a kid you couldn’t say anything, but they would pass the bottle and tell each other some of the biggest stories in the world.”

However, not all of his stories are as fond of memories. In his talk, Hairston told a story about lifeguards that did not want to desegregate a pool in 1960s Charleston. They sprayed Hairston and his friends with water hoses to forcibly remove them. 

But he also told a story about encountering a more subtle form of discrimination at an event more recently. Some things were said that had implied racial bias. That evening, he used a story from the main stage to point out what had happened and why it needed to change. 

Hairston said he uses stories, often laced with humor, to help people understand the issues, especially when it comes to race, that surround us. 

“I realized that in West Virginia  —  as much as I love it, and I love it to death  —  there are issues that we don’t deal with. There’s some things that we need to work on always,” Hairston said. “I hope this message keeps conversation alive, keeps people talking, making people aware so that when they hear something among their friends or their fathers or their uncles or whatever, they at least challenge it a little bit. I think we all become better.”

Hairston travels the region telling stories about his childhood that, he hopes, give his listeners a better understanding about what it means to grow up ‘Black in Appalachia.’