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Ever Lee Hairston

Forever Climbing:
An Extraordinary Federationist Still Rises

by John W. Smith, Ph.D.

From the Editor: John Smith is First Vice President of the National Federation of the Blind of Ohio, and Ever Lee Hairston is First Vice President of the NFB of New Jersey. John wrote the following profile because he decided that Ever Lee's story has much to inspire all of us. Here it is:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I'll rise...

Maya Angelou

The first time I heard Ever Lee Hairston speak, I was immediately reminded of Maya Angelou's powerful words. Her voice had that same ability to convey strength and excitement, yet also revealed warmth and a true sense of commitment to self. I was fascinated by her assertiveness as a black woman. In Ms. Hairston's voice I heard a woman who was confident, sure of herself, poised, and independent.

I first met Ms. Hairston when we were both members of the National Federation of the Blind scholarship committee. Having previously known her only by name, I heard that full and captivating voice for the first time on the first evening of a scholarship committee meeting. Both of us having arrived late for the meeting, we shared the last of the supper and the first of many stories she would tell me over the next two years.

I was immediately impressed with her voice and her diction. I am a professor of speech communication, so these stood out to me. Upon further investigation I found that Ms. Hairston had a life story that should be told. We all have stories, of course, but during those two years I discovered that I wanted to be the one to tell hers.

Ever Lee grew up in a family of sharecroppers in North Carolina. Her grandfather had been a house slave. Among his responsibilities in the household he waited on tables and shined shoes. He and his wife Charmin brought fourteen children into the world of plantation life. Although all the brothers and sisters later migrated to the great promised land of the North, Ever Lee's father decided to stay on the plantation with his parents and become a sharecropper. He and his wife raised seven children. Ever Lee, the third oldest child, had what she learned to describe as "eye problems."

Many of her responsibilities at the house where the plantation owners lived included sweeping the porch and cleaning the silver. Among other domestic duties she became a key caretaker of many of the children on the plantation. One of her sisters who was diagnosed with a kidney disease also became her sole responsibility. Adding to her eye problems, Ever Lee grew up with a severe speech impediment. Paralleling the life of Maya Angelou, who was also affected by a speech impediment, she clung to her burning desire to learn.

Ever Lee began school in a two-room school house, but eventually she was bused ten miles to school. In retrospect she recognizes that she was the teacher's pet and recalls that at an early age she learned she was attractive because her tall, light-skinned frame was complemented by her long hair. Not only was she attractive by traditional feminine standards, but in the black community there is a saying, "If you are black stay back; if you are brown stick around; but if you are light, you're all right." However, despite her zest for education, she still had a secret. Her so-called eye problems were persistent, but she did not want anybody to know because she might be treated the same way her sister Rosie was.

Rosie was blind, and, to make matters worse, she wore a patch over one eye. This stigmatic symbol represented pity, inferiority, and ridicule for her and her family. Ever Lee frequently did Rosie's chores because almost everyone felt sorry for her. Because of this Ever Lee often felt resentment for her sister. Those who did not feel sorry for Rosie still did not think highly of her or her place in the social order. The result was that Ever Lee hid her eye problems because to her at this time admitting her blindness would have meant the end of the world as she knew it.

Although burdened with overwhelming responsibilities, Ever Lee graduated from high school with honors. Unfortunately there wasn't enough money for college because care of her terminally ill sister absorbed much of the family's resources. As one might expect, this inquisitive and vivacious young woman wanted to attend college, but another driving force drove her as well. Unlike her father before her, who remained on the plantation, she had a burning desire to get away.

She never liked being taken out of school to work, but it was on one of these occasions that she had an encounter that made her resolve to do whatever was necessary to get away. She was picking cotton along with several members of her family and some hired hands when she encountered a big, black snake. She was petrified. She screamed for one of her brothers. When he came to see what was wrong, they discovered many more snakes. If you picture workers running in one direction and snakes slithering everywhere, the scene may appear comic, but it was extremely frightening and left a lasting impression on Ever Lee. As she sat on a pile of cotton bags crying uncontrollably, she reflected: "I hate being taken out of school for two weeks at a time; it's so hard to catch up when I return; I am tired of running from the black cows and bulls just to get to the outhouse!" Ever Lee vowed, "Oh God, Oh God, there must be a better way of life for me."

That better way came one day when she saw an advertisement in a magazine for live-in maids in New York City. Somehow she gathered enough money to purchase a Greyhound bus ticket to New York, and with her three pieces of luggage she arrived at the agency. This was an agency serving wealthy Jewish families who came to interview and select Negro girls to be live-in maids. Ever Lee noticed that the lighter-skinned girls were going first and fast. Immediately Ever Lee herself was chosen. The man of the family picked her from the group of applicants and talked with her briefly. He decided that he would take her to his home to meet the rest of his family. They decided she would do, so he drove her back to the agency to pick up her luggage and complete the paperwork.

As they drove, it became clear to Ever Lee that the man was interested in more than her domestic capabilities. He eased his hand onto her leg and began to tell her just how wonderful he would make her life if she was willing to satisfy him in other ways. Each time he put his hand on her leg she managed to move or push his hand away, but she soon recognized that she was not in a position to control the situation. When she told him she wanted to attend college, his response was, "You don't want to do that." She quickly concluded that it was not in her best interests to argue with him, so she began concentrating all her efforts on getting back to the agency.

When they finally did arrive at the agency, she excused herself to go find a bathroom. This man had promised her a better life, but it was one she could see only as sexual enslavement. To a young, black, naive, southern woman who had come to New York with high expectations, this opportunity might have seemed as realistic as the limited number of other options facing her. With integrity and an unwillingness to compromise herself for anyone, she hid in a bathroom stall for hours. But something else was going on. In what would become an overriding theme in her life, she was also hiding from herself, her eye problems, and even her very existence.

When she was certain the man had gone home, Ever Lee emerged from the bathroom to join the women at the agency who had not been chosen. The agency took them to another location, and, as fate would have it, she was hired by a wonderful family with a terminally ill four-year-old. This was a suitable situation for Ever Lee because of her caretaking experience with her terminally ill sister.

...Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don't you take it awful hard

'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness, But still, like air, I'll rise...

And rise she did. Ever Lee was hired for the summer by this family, but down deep inside she yearned to be free, to attend college. The child passed away the following summer, and she told her benefactors of her dreams. Grateful for her service to their family, they provided her first year's tuition to North Carolina's Central College.

Immediately fitting in at college, Ever Lee was voted Miss Freshman. Although exhilarated, she was fearful that people might find out she could not see very well. As Miss Freshman she would be expected to do many things: speak in assembly, march in the homecoming parade, and meet and greet students around the college campus. She did not want their image of her as a confident, attractive young lady to become tarnished. She could not see at night, and she still had her speech problem. God forbid, she might trip on the stage or stumble over her words. So for four-and-a-half years she lived in denial and in fear.

In many ways she felt as if she were living a lie. She had escaped the plantation and a possible life of misery as a domestic in the home of a lecherous man, but still she was not free. She was afraid to set high expectations for herself because her experience had taught her that no one who was blind could live a full, rich, and productive life. The memory of blind Rosie's experience prevailed.

After graduation Ever Lee moved to New Jersey, where she began to look for a career. She thought that, since she was bright, young, and attractive and since she had heard about all the wonderful job opportunities in the North, she could find a job with very little effort. She was devastated at her first job interview when the interviewer said, "I like the way you speak and dress, but we just haven't begun to hire Negroes here." As she left the interview, she thought to herself, "I marched with Dr. King; I've gone to college; I'm attractive; yet in many people's eyes I am still just a Negro."

After the interview she found herself walking down the street in a depressed state with tears rolling down her cheeks. A car pulled up beside her, and a man introducing himself as a detective asked her if he could be of any assistance. Immediately the advice from home—"Don't get in the car with a stranger"— flooded her mind, but for some reason, perhaps her need to confide in someone, she decided to talk to the detective. She needed to pour out her soul to someone, and with this man she felt she could. She told him about her fears. She even told him about her eye problems, and it was this honesty that prompted him to help her get the eye exam she needed. It led to a diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa.

Ultimately Ever Lee married the detective, and they had a son, but their marriage fell apart in the year that followed. Ever Lee believes that her husband wanted to save her. Perhaps he saw her as beautiful and helpless. He wanted to help her, but he was interested only in having a trophy—a nice arm piece. When it became clear that she was going to lose the rest of her sight, it also became painfully obvious that he could never accept a blind trophy, no matter how beautiful and poised she was.

...Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I've got diamonds At the meeting of my thighs?...

Ever Lee acquired a teaching position at a high school, a dream come true! A short four years later, her teaching career ended due to the progression of her eye disease. Ever Lee says, "Perhaps it would have been easier to sit home and collect Social Security checks and feel as if I had no self-worth, but instead I continued to seek other employment." After being turned down several times by employers as a result of her blindness, finally she was hired in an entry-level counselor's position with the Health and Human Services Department. She continued her education and later became a supervising alcoholism counselor in the State of New Jersey.

It became obvious to Ever Lee that she needed some blindness skills in order to meet the demands of this challenging position. She also knew the importance of competing with her sighted colleagues who were fighting for Civil Service status.

The National Federation of the Blind is not for everyone. Some people are never ready to accept the independence and challenge offered by the NFB, but many people who have come to this movement have had the experience of meeting it at the exact time when they were ready to take full advantage of it. As a direct result of recruiting efforts organized by the organization, Ever Lee met the NFB head-on in 1987. She attended her first National Convention in Phoenix, Arizona, where she slept on a cot, carried a short cane, and even felt isolated from her own affiliate. Regardless of that experience, in 1988 she decided to attend the convention in Chicago.

There Ever Lee discovered how illiterate she was. She couldn't read Braille or print, and she was still trying to find her way around in a new environment. It took her about three years to find out that the Federation was where she needed to be. There is an old Nigerian proverb that says, "It takes about three years to see the earth move." During this period Ever Lee admitted to herself that she needed to develop her blindness skills in order to compete with her sighted colleagues at work.

Therefore she decided to attend one of the National Federation of the Blind's adult training centers. It was a decision that would change her life. At the Louisiana Center for the Blind, where she enrolled, she learned for the first time that it was respectable to be blind. Despite her loss of vision she was the same vivacious, attractive, and eloquent woman. She recalls, "It was the most exhilarating, unique, unusual, bizarre, and profound experience of my life."

In 1991 Ever Lee attended a leadership seminar, after which she began to ask questions. According to Ever Lee, "I didn't hear a lot of black people at the meetings—certainly not black women. And this bothered me. I began to investigate how I could get more black people involved in this wonderful organization. Although there was some talk about organizing a black caucus, I did not want that. I wanted to make the opportunities I had found in this organization available to other people, especially black women. I know and believe that it is important that we reach out for ourselves and that we fight our own battles, but I think that, because of the attitude and the thinking ingrained in some of us as black people that we are inferior, second-class citizens, we have to unlearn old patterns and relearn what is reality."

One way to do this, Ever Lee believes, is to have effective leaders and positive black role models to assist this process. "I don't want this point to be a big part of this story," Ever Lee says, "but I do want to do whatever it takes to encourage blind, black females to join the National Federation of the Blind and to become leaders in this organization."

It should now be obvious why I had to tell this extraordinary Federationist's story. Despite this little peek into her life, there are still more stories just as exhilarating, just as profound that have yet to be explored. She is not extraordinary because she is a black woman or because she rose from plantation poverty to become successful and confident. She is extraordinary because she fought every step of the way and allowed herself to be vulnerable and humble enough to look inside herself to face her blindness and to maintain her integrity in the face of overwhelming odds.

...Out of the huts of history's sham I rise Up from a past that's rooted in pain I rise I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, Welling and swelling I bear in the tide Leaving behind the nights of terror and fear I rise Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear I rise Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

In many ways the black community has been chauvinistic, and black women have not been allowed to be assertive—certainly not publicly—or to assume leadership roles in our community. In Ever Lee I see a woman who is confident, sure of herself, poised, and independent. A blind black woman, carrying thereby triple minority status: she has decided to make these three characteristics strengths rather than weaknesses.

We all have our stories, and this is Ever Lee's. It seems only fitting that she have the final word. "I worked my way through college. I earned that degree because hard work always pays off, as do dedication, commitment, honesty, and spirituality. These are the keys to success and the ones that have unlocked my life for me."