Stephen Hairston Sr., a former police sergeant who became president of the Winston-Salem chapter of the NAACP, died Saturday at Forsyth Medical Center. He was 65.
Larry Womble, a former member of the Winston-Salem Board of Aldermen (now known as the Winston-Salem City Council) said Wednesday that Hairston was a fair person.
As president of the local NAACP chapter, Hairston encouraged members to consider various points of view, Womble recalled.
“I always thought he was an even-minded, easy-going person,” Womble said. “He seemed to try to hear both sides of a situation, even with the NAACP.”
In the president’s role, Hairston advocated for more educational opportunities for black students, spoke out for what he considered excessive suspensions of black students, urged local and state law enforcement agencies to take more steps to rehabilitate gang members, encouraged city officials to provide economic opportunities for poor city residents and worked to reduce police traffic checkpoints in minority neighborhoods.
Don Martin, a former superintendent of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, said he often met with Hairston about issues such as student suspensions. Martin, now a Forsyth County commissioner, said Hairston and other community leaders pushed the school board to reduce its 10-day suspension policy to six days for most students.
“(Hairston) was a big part of that discussion,” Martin said.
A 1973 graduate of East Forsyth High School, Hairston received his bachelor’s degree at Winston-Salem State University in 1977, according to his obituary. He joined the Winston-Salem Police Department in March 1980 and moved through the ranks as a patrol officer, a detective and a sergeant. He retired from the Winston-Salem Police Department after 20 years of service. In 2002, two years after Hairston retired as a police sergeant, he was elected as president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
As a police sergeant, Hairston provided effective leadership to the officers he supervised, Womble said.
“Stephen didn’t like to be out front,” Womble said. “He liked, more or less, to stay in the background and let his officers take control of the situation.”
For several years in the 1990s, Hairston led the foot patrol of officers assigned to Cleveland Avenue Homes in the city’s northeastern section. During that era, the police department assigned several foot patrols to inner-city neighbors as a way to combat crime and improve community relations with officers.
Hairston told the Winston-Salem Journal in March 1995 that he hoped officers could be role models for children who lived in the Cleveland Avenue Homes.
“We are trying to restore a sense that this is their community here — a sense of community pride,” Hairston said at that time.
Hairston’s career hit a bump in late August 1999 when he and two other police sergeants were among off-duty officers who worked security at a rap show at Joel Coliseum. The event was marred by brawls and reports that there was an act of oral sex on stage.
Hairston and the two other sergeants were demoted after an police internal-affairs investigation, the Journal reported in November 1999.
The demotions drew the attention of the Black Leadership Roundtable, a local group of community and religious leaders, and the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, among other organizations who spoke on behalf of the sergeants.
In February 2000, City Manager Bill Stuart reinstated Hairston to his sergeant’s rank as well as to the pay and retirement benefits he had earned before he was demoted. Stuart said he had changed his mind about demoting the sergeants.
At that time, Hairston said he was happy to get his stripes back but sad to have been the subject of so much controversy. The other two sergeants eventually had their rank restored as well.
“While it lifts a heavy burden off my shoulders, I still feel like there are no winners in this situation, the way it went down,” Hairston said.
Vivian Burke, a member of the Winston-Salem City Council, said Tuesday that Hairston appreciated his job as a police officer.
“He enjoyed working with youth,” said Burke, a former chairwoman of the city’s public-safety committee. “He wanted to work with people. He was a grassroots police (officer).”
Denise “D.D.” Adams, a member of the Winston-Salem City Council, said she will remember Hairston for his ability to communicate his concerns about social justice.
“Those concerns included all levels of government and community,” Adams said.”He just wanted the systems and institutions to do the right thing for the people.”