It is with great sorrow that we reflect on the life of David Hairston, a profoundly inspirational community leader, a deeply respected member of the Appalachian Voices Board of Directors, and a treasured friend to many.
David’s path crossed with Appalachian Voices when we were connecting with people living near Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant and its massive coal ash pond. David, along with Annie Brown, another inspirational coal ash fighter from the same area, started to connect the dots between the illnesses the community had been experiencing and the coal fired power plant in their midst. From sitting first in the back of the meeting room taking in all the information, to leading the call to stand together and demand action, David took on the mantle of justice warrior.
When David saw injustice, he took action to right it. He was a cornerstone and champion of Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, a group of Stokes County residents pushing for pollution clean-up from the nearby coal-fired power plant. He helped found the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash, a statewide group of residents impacted by the coal burning by-product. As a leader, he didn’t want the spotlight himself, but he was adept at turning the spotlight to illuminate injustices, highlight stories of resistance and hope, and light the path to change
He was involved in many significant moments in the fight for coal ash cleanup — the first meeting between advocates and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill scientists who conducted water sampling took place at his home, and he served as a tour guide for N.C. Department of Environmental Quality staff when they came to Belews Creek. He stood beside Al Gore and Rev. William Barber II on the shores of Belews Lake demanding cleanup and change.
In 2016, David testified in front of the North Carolina Advisory Council to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on behalf of Belews Creek residents and their concerns over contaminant readings in their wells. In part due to David’s powerful testimonies and unrelenting pressure on Duke Energy executives and North Carolina elected officials, a coal ash cleanup agreement was enacted in 2020 to clean up not just his community, but all North Carolina coal ash communities.
David became a board member of Appalachian Voices in 2018, a position he held until his passing. In this role, he spoke deliberately, and only when he felt it was important, and his input carried gravitas. When he offered insight, others listened closely, and he provided feedback in helpful, direct ways. David’s contributions very often reflected his perspective as someone both affected by the issues Appalachian Voices works on and as a local leader working with us in his community. From that perspective, he spoke about the importance of Appalachian Voices’ community organizing and his pride in how we do it. He also spoke very fondly of all the staff who stood next to him and supported him in the coal ash work.
More about David
“Life in the Sacrifice Zone,” a new documentary film by Soul Ash Pictures and Director Chad Nance, is temporarily available for free online viewing in celebration of David’s life.
“The passing of a fierce advocate for his community,” Winston-Salem Journal, July 26, 2023
“Walnut Cove advocate for social, ecological justice dies,” Winston-Salem Journal, July 25, 2023
“‘David Fighting Goliath’: For Walnut Cove residents, environmental activism is personal,” WUNC 91.5, Sept. 12, 2022
“One Neighborhood’s Fight for Representation,” The Appalachian Voice, June 7, 2018
David was quiet, but had a big laugh and an even bigger presence that inspired those around him. His welcoming spirit and his support was deeply appreciated by staff and board members alike.
His care for his community was deep and unrelenting. Beyond his work in cleaning up toxic coal ash, in 2015 David began serving as the president of the Walnut Tree Community Association. The predominantly Black community of Walnut Tree had been confronting racism from the neighboring town of Walnut Cove for decades, and David played a key role in winning annexation and securing municipal services for the Walnut Tree community.
Helping the children in his community thrive was another mission close to his heart. Especially important to David was the 2017 establishment of a new playground in Walnut Tree, a project that fulfilled one of his mother’s wishes and that he spoke of with great pride. David served as president of the Mildred S. Hairston Youth Mentoring Center, which provides guidance, assistance with school work and skills training to prepare students in Stokes County for the future. David was also an active member of the Stokes County NAACP.
David also served as an advisory team member for The Lilies Project, a creative endeavor that combines art, advocacy and community service to tell the stories of Walnut Cove, including the community’s history with coal ash. He also advocated for a new solar farm in the area, which went online in June 2022 and provides enough power for 10,000 homes.
In a 2018 interview about the Walnut Tree annexation with Sarah Kellogg, a former staff member with Appalachian Voices, David shared his advice for other communities fighting for their rights:
“Come together. When you come together and you fight the fight together and you are determined not to lose, you will win. There will be setbacks, but don’t ever let a setback stop you. Know that as long as you are fighting that fight, eventually you will win.”
David’s ability to bring people together to advance common causes has made a profound impact in Walnut Tree and Walnut Cove, and at Appalachian Voices through his role on our board of directors. Many of us at Appalachian Voices have had the honor of working alongside David and calling him a friend. We join the many communities that he loved and served in mourning his untimely loss and extending our condolences to his family and loved ones.
Reflections from Board Chair Tracey Wright
David Hairston was a fellow board member, who, over our shared years of service, became a friend. There are many things that I and my fellow board members really admired about David, including his steadfast commitment to his beloved hometown of Walnut Cove, N.C., and standing up to big energy corporations whose actions had negatively impacted the health and living conditions of his area. I considered David to be a quiet giant whose measured words spoke volumes and whose kind and encouraging spirit helped empower others to fight the good fight.
David’s untimely death has stunned and saddened all of his current and past colleagues on the Appalachian Voices Board of Directors. His quiet yet strong spirit will continue to serve as a beacon to us as we continue the work that meant so much to him. Our thoughts and prayers are with David’s family and friends. Heaven has gained an amazing community organizer!
Reflections from Executive Director Tom Cormons
David’s life provides an incredibly important example. He lives on both for everything he accomplished and — just as importantly — as a uniquely powerful inspiration and role model for many who had the good fortune to know him and work with him.
David’s tremendous heart was apparent in every moment, and he believed at his core in the power of bringing people together. This conviction permeated David’s wise counsel as a member of Appalachian Voices’ board and — coupled with his great energy, charisma, and incisive intelligence — it gave him a truly extraordinary ability to turn love into action and impact. I am deeply grateful to have known him.
Reflections from former North Carolina Program Manager Amy Adams
Walnut Cove resident and coal ash fighter Tracey Brown used to call him Super David! And he was truly a superhero to so many. He would on occasion refer to me or others as his heroes, but he was also ours. David Hairston was a loving gentle giant with a heart of gold. But where he saw injustice, where a wrong needed righting, David took on the voice and strength of a thousand lions.
David embodied what it means to be in service to others, to champion the underdog, and to give more than you receive.
I admired him more than he understood and more than he’ll ever know. The world is a little less bright with his passing. But in his legacy he has illuminated the path towards hope and inspired many people from all walks of life to continue the march towards justice, together.