Photos by Larry Middleton
Nannie B. Hairston, a pillar of Montgomery County, passed away on Friday at the age of 95. Hairston was an active member of the community, from helping to create a chapter of the League of Women Voters, to being the chair of the local NAACP chapter for 20 years. Many people recalled her life-long work to promote inclusion and education in local youth.
“She was always well-respected and wanted us young ladies not to stand behind the scenes but be active, to go out and help people,” said Debbie Sherman-Lee, who had known Hairston since she was in the seventh grade. Sherman-Lee remembers the first community event she worked on with Hairston was a campaign in Downtown Christiansburg to encourage people to vote and not take for granted the right that decades of people had fought for.
“She always just wanted us to do the right thing and get involved in the community,” she said.
In her lifetime, Hairston was awarded the Maggie L. Walker Community Service award from the state chapter NAACP, visited the White House twice, met Maya Angelou, and was honored with an award given in her name by the local NAACP chapter at the Freedom Fund Banquet each year.
Her work in the NAACP will continue with her legacy, said long-time friend Alvin Hughes. Hughes credits Hairston with his involvement in the organization, first encouraging him to become chair of the local chapter and then eventually president.
“She was fighting discrimination but she was always fair about everything she did and everything she said,” Hughes said. “Everybody that she came in contact with, she left something good for them to remember.”
Hairston moved from West Virginia to Montgomery County in the 1950’s and made a name for herself across Virginia. NAACP Secretary, Deborah Travis, remembers when she moved to the area in 1995, she already knew who Hairston was. She had heard about her work from friends and ran into Hairston in the post office, where she was encouraged right away to take part in her community. Travis recalled the personal influence that Hairston not only had on her but other people she came in contact with as well.
“She taught me patience,” Travis said. “She taught me that despite the wrong-doings and discrimination in the world, and even in Montgomery County, to be patient and kind with people. She taught me the meaning of love.”
One of the projects Hairston is well known for in fighting discrimination was her effort in restoring the Christiansburg Institute building. In the 1960’s this was the only secondary school for black people until desegregation was passed.
Hairston is commemorated for her community work with awards and achievements, including a bust of her featured at the Montgomery County Government Center.
Her and her husband, John T. Hairston, spent their lives advocating for education, and the couple funded a scholarship for students at NRVCC in Dublin. Hughes remembers how she believed in education for all, even those who couldn’t afford it.
Hairston spent more than 60 years working for the Montgomery County and surrounding communities to make a better and more accepting place or everyone. Her efforts in her church, NAACP, and women’s rights affected many members of the community and left a legacy of kindness and activism.
“This is one of the best areas you can live in and a lot of it is because of Hairston,” Hughes said. “Her work will continue in the NAACP as long as we have breath in our bodies.”