Slaves in the Family

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Westminster, Maryland, U.S.A. 1999 S Trade Paperback Book New Unread, perfectly solid spine, shiny wraps--you'll be so thrilled you'll huff, and you'll puff, and nearly blow ... your OWN house down when this books shows at your door! ! ! Read more Show Less

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Overview

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

"[A] LANDMARK BOOK."

--San Francisco Chronicle

"POWERFUL."

--The New York Times Book Review

"GRIPPING."

--The Boston Sunday Globe

"BRILLIANT."

--The New Yorker

"EVERYONE SHOULD READ AND LEARN FROM THIS LUMINOUS BOOK...Like Alex Haley's Roots, through which African American history came into national focus...Slaves in the Family has the potential for creating a perceptual shift in the American mind...The book is not only honest in its scrupulous reporting but also personal narrative at its finest."  

--San Francisco Chronicle

"BALL IS A FIRST-RATE SCHOLAR-JOURNALIST...He's also a good detective, tracking down the many descendants of Ball slaves from New York to California and back in the South and coaxing them, often with some difficulty, to tell their stories...Outside Faulkner, it will be hard to find a more poignant, powerful account of a white man struggling with his and his nation's past."

--The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"A MASTERPIECE...REMARKABLE...It is a work about slaves in the family.  But it is also a large omnium gatherum of enchanting fireside anecdotes, secrets teased out of reluctant fragments from the remote past, the real lives of blacks and whites whose stories had been lost in the disintegrating churn of time until Edward Ball's patient reconstructions."  

--The Raleigh News & Observer

"A TOUR DE FORCE...The heart of this remarkable book consists of his sleuthing--tracking down and interviewing the descendants of former Ball slaves across the country... Part oral history, this unique family saga is a catharsis and a searching inventory of racially divided American society."

--Publishers Weekly (starred and boxed review)

"A PAGEANTRY OF PASSIONS AND STRUGGLES."

--African Sun Times

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Editorial Reviews

Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Poignant.
Charlotte Painter
Everyone should read and learn from this luminous book. -- San Francisco Sunday Examiner
New Yorker
Brilliant.
School Library Journal
A compelling saga, Ball's biographical history of his family stands as a microcosm of the evolution of American racial relations. Meticulously researched, and aided by the fact that the South Carolina Ball families were compulsive record keepers, the story begins with the first Ball to arrive in Charleston in 1698. The family eventually owned more than 20 rice plantations along the Cooper River, businesses made profitable by the work of slaves. In the course of his research, the author learned that his ancestors were not only slave owners, but also that there was a highly successful slave trader company in his background. He was able to trace the offspring of slave women and Ball men (between 75,000 and 100,000 currently living) and locate a number of his own African-American distant cousins. Although records indicate that the author's forebearers were not by any means cruel or vicious owners, his remorse for these facets of his family history is clear. In the course of his research, he visited Bunce Island, off the coast of Sierra Leone, to see the fortress from which his ancestors loaded terrorized men, women, and children onto slave ships. Their story represents that of many African- Americans. This book helps readers to visualize, if not understand, the slave legacy still enmeshed in this country today. Despite its length, this is an important, well-written slice of history that will be of interest to young adults. -- Carol DeAngelo, Garcia Consulting Inc., EPA Headquarters, Washington, DC
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Poignant.
Drew Gilpin Faust
Powerful....there is much to admire in Ball's very willingness to challenge the generations of silence in his white family and to search out black kin whose reactions he had every reason to fear. -- The New York Times Book Review
Entertainment Weekly
...[M]eticulously examines the slave-owning past of the author's ancestors.
San
"Everyone should read and learn from this luminous book.... Slaves in the Family has the potential for creating a perceptual shift in the American mind...the book is not only honest in its scrupulous reporting but also personal narrative at its finest." --San Francisco Chronicle
The New Yorker
Brilliant.
Kirkus Reviews
A journalist's exhaustively researched, intensely personal quest confronts the legacy of slavery connecting his South Carolina family and the people they enslaved. Ball's mission, in reckoning with a past for which he feels accountable, if not responsible, is two-fold: explore the story of his white slave-owning ancestors and seek out descendants of the people they bought and sold. The former Village Voice columnist displays his journalistic moxie wading through the voluminous written record (10,000 pages of family papers spanning four centuries, National Archives documents, census reports, and more) to flesh out the family character and track down slave descendants. Some were unaware of their ancestry. Others, like Emily Marie Frayer, whose parents were enslaved at Limerick, one of a dozen Ball plantations in the Charleston area, tapped a rich oral history that supplements Ball's research. Consumed with the question of how slavery shaped the identity of both black and white families, he struggles to divine his ancestors' attitude toward slaves, sifting conflicting evidence that suggests they were both kind masters and cruel taskmasters. He gets more grief from his own family than from blacks, who view his earnest apologies as largely irrelevant—though one man credits Ball with being "man enough" to try. "There is nothing I can do to give back for the pain that my family caused your family," he tells Frayer, during an emotional trip to her birthplace. But in trying to make amends, he links several families (through Ball family papers recording slave purchases) to their African ancestry—a rare gift that, while falling short of reparation, does establish a vital entreeto their past.

Ball's impressive detective work and the black voices it records build a monumental and extraordinary case history of the rise and fall of America's most shameful institution. Together, their searing, soul-searching grappling with past sins strikes deep at the heart of the country's enduring racial division.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345431059
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/28/1998
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 5.51 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Ball was born in Savannah, Georgia, graduated from Brown University, and was a columnist for The Village Voice.  This is his first book.
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Read an Excerpt

My father had a little joke that made light of our legacy as a family that had once owned slaves.

"There are five things we don't talk about in the Ball family," he would say. "Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes."

"What does that leave to talk about?" my mother asked once.

"That's another of the family secrets," Dad said, smiling.

My father, Theodore Porter Ball, came from the venerable city of Charleston, South Carolina, the son of an old plantation clan. The Ball family's plantations were among the oldest and longest standing in the American South, and there were more than twenty of them along the Cooper River, North of Charleston. Between 1698 and 1865, the 167 years the family was in the slave business, close to four thousand black people were born into slavery to the Balls or bought by them. The crop they raised was rice, whose color and standard gave it the name Carolina Gold. After the Civil War, some of the Ball places stayed in business as sharecrop farms with paid black labor until about 1900, when the rice market finally failed in the face of competition from Louisiana and Asia.

When I was twelve, Dad died and was buried near Charleston. Sometime during his last year, he brought together my brother, Theodore Jr., and me to give each of us a copy of the published history of the family. The book had a wordy title, Recollections of the Ball Family of South Carolina and the Comingtee Plantation. A distant cousin, long dead, had written the manuscript, and the book was printed in 1909 on rag paper, with a tan binding and green cloth boards. On the spine the words BALL FAMILY were embossed. The pages smelled like wet leaves.

"One day you'll want to know about all this," Dad said, waving his hand vaguely, his lips pursed. "Your ancestors." The tone of the old joke was replaced by some nervousness.

I know my father was proud of his heritage but at the same time, I suspect, had questions about it. The story of his slave-owning family, part of the weave of his childhood, was a mystery he could only partly decipher. With the gift of the book, Dad seemed to be saying that the plantations were a piece of unfinished business. In that moment, the story of the Ball clan was locked in the depths of my mind, to be pried loose one day.

When I was a child, Dad used to tell stories about our ancestors, the rice planters. I got a personal glimpse of the American revolution, because the Balls had played a role in it--some of us fought for the British, some for independence. the Civil War seemed more real since Dad's grandfather and three great-uncles fought for the Confederacy. From time to time in his stories, Dad mentioned the people our family used to own. They were usually just "the slaves," sometimes "the Ball slaves," a puff of black smoke on the wrinkled horizon of the past. Dad evidently didn't know much about them, and I imagine he didn't want to know.

"Did I ever tell you about Wambaw Elias Ball?" he might say. "His plantation was on Wambaw Creek. He had about a hundred and fifty slaves, and he was a mean fella."

My father had a voice honed by cigarettes, an antique Charleston accent, and I liked to hear him use the old names.

"Wambaw Elias was a Tory," Dad began. "I mean, he picked the wrong side in the Revolution." When the Revolutionary War reached the South, Wambaw Elias, instead of joining the American rebels, went to the British commander in Charleston, Lord Cornwallis, who gave him a company of men and the rank of colonel. Wambaw Elias fought the patriots and burned their houses until such time as the British lost and his victims called for revenge. The Americans went for Wambaw Elias's human property, dragging off some fifty slaves from Wambaw plantation, while other black workers managed to escape into the woods. Wambaw Elias knew he had no future in the United States and decided to cash in his assets. Eventually he captured the slaves who had run away, sold them, then took his family to England, where he lived for another thirty-eight years, regretting to the last that he had been forced to give up the life of a slave owner.

In the Ball family, the tale of Wambaw Elias and his slaves passed as a children's story.

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Table of Contents

452
1 Plantation Memories7
2 Masters from England22
3 The Well of Tradition43
4 Bright Ma84
5 A Family Business88
6 Written in the Blood110
7 The Making of a Dynasty134
8 Sawmill155
9 Bloodlines176
10 "Yours, obediently"198
11 A House Divided215
12 The Width of the Realm242
13 A Painter's Legacy271
14 The Curse of Buzzard Wing295
15 The Siege322
16 Aftermath351
17 The Preservation Society375
18 A Reckoning382
Epilogue: Bunce Island419
Genealogies446
Acknowledgments
Sources454
Notes457
Picture Credits485
Index491
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First Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

PLANTATION MEMORIES

My father had a little joke that made light of our legacy as a family that had once owned slaves.

"There are five things, we don't talk about in the Ball family", he would say. "Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes."

"What does that leave to talk about?" my mother asked once.

"That's another of the family secrets," Dad said, smiling.

My father, Theodore Porter Ball, came from the venerable city of Charleston, South Carolina, the son of an old plantation clan. The Ball family's plantations were among the oldest and longest standing in the American South, and there were more than twenty of them along the Cooper River, north of Charleston. Between 1698 and 1865, the 167 years the family was in the slave business, close to four thousand black people were born into slavery to the Balls or bought by them. The crop they raised was rice, whose color and standard gave it the name Carolina Gold. After the Civil War, some of the Ball places stayed in business as sharecrop farms with paid black labor until about 1900, when the rice market finally failed in face of competition from Louisiana and Asia.

When I was twelve, Dad died and was buried near Charleston. Sometime during his last year, he brought together my brother, Theodore Jr., and me to give each of us a copy of the published history of the family. The book had a wordy title, 'Recollections of the Ball Family of South Carolina and the Comingtee Plantation'. A distant cousin, long dead, had written the manuscript, and the book was printed in 1909 on rag paper, with a tan binding and green cloth boards. On the spine the words BALL FAMILY were embossed. The pages smelled like wet leaves.

"One day you'll want to know about all this," Dad said, waving his hand vaguely, his lips pursed. "Your ancestors." The tone of the old joke was replaced by some nervousness.

I know my father was proud of his heritage but at the same time, I suspect, had questions about it. The story of his slave-owning family, part of the weave of his childhood, was a mystery he could only partly decipher. With the gift of the book, Dad seemed to be saying that the plantations were a piece of unfinished business. In that moment, the story of the Ball clan was locked in the depths of my mind, to be pried loose one day.

When I was a child, Dad used to tell stories about our ancestors, the rice planters. I got a personal glimpse of the American Revolution, because the Balls had played a role in it--some of us fought for the British, some for independence. The Civil War seemed more real since Dad's grandfather and three great-uncles fought for the Confederacy. From time to time in his stories, Dad mentioned the people our family used to own. They were usually just "the slaves," sometimes "the Ball slaves," a puff of black smoke on the wrinkled horizon of the past. Dad evidently didn't know much about them, and I imagine he didn't want to know.

"Did I ever tell you about Wambaw Elias Ball?" he might say. "His plantation was on Wambaw Creek. He had about a hundred and fifty slaves, and he was a mean fella."

My father had a voice honed by cigarettes, an antique Charleston accent, and I liked to hear him use the old names.

"Wambaw Elias was a Tory," Dad began. "I mean, he picked the wrong side in the Revolution." When the Revolutionary War reached the South, Wambaw Elias, instead of joining the American rebels, went to the British commander in Charleston, Lord Cornwallis, who gave him a company of men and the rank of colonel. Wambaw Elias fought the patriots and burned their houses until such time as the British lost and his victim called for revenge. The Americans went for Wambaw Elias's human property, dragging off some fifty slaves from Wambaw plantation, while other black workers managed to escape into the woods. Wambaw Elias knew he had no future in the United States and decided to cash in his assets. Eventually he captured the slaves who had run away, sold them, then took his family to England, where he lived for another thirty-eight years, regretting to the last that he had been forced to give up the life of a slave owner.

In the Ball family, the tale of Wambaw Elias and his slaves passed as a children's story.

In my childhood, our family lived in various small towns and cities in the South. Dad was an Episcopal priest, so the houses we lived in belonged to the church, and my parents owned a single car. Throughout my spartan, God-fearing upbringing, I sensed we were different from other people. It wasn't merely that Dad was a clergyman, though certainly that set us apart; but "our people" had once controlled a slave dynasty.

The first piece of paper I remember my father presenting to me regarding the family was an obituary from the Charleston News and Courier. A long strip of yellowed newsprint, the clipping carried the headline "Isaac Ball, 88, Confederate, Dies." Isaac Ball was Dad's grandfather. He was born in 1844 on Limerick plantation, one of the many Ball tracts, and died in 1933 in Charleston. Dad used to call him Isaac the Confederate to distinguish him from the seven other Isaacs in the family tree, and because on April 28, 1862, one week after his eighteenth birthday, Isaac joined the South Carolina Militia, First Regiment, Artillery, and went to fight in the War Between the States. (The War Between the States is what the Civil War has been called in the South.) When Isaac was born, Limerick plantation, thirty miles north of Charleston, was the largest of the Ball plantations, measuring 4,564 acres. In the years before Isaac's birth, some three hundred people lived in slavery there. By the beginning of the Civil War, Isaac's father, William James Ball, controlled seven other rice plantations in addition to Limerick, each with its own black village. His Ball cousins and in-laws owned more land and people.

I have several photographs of Isaac, my great-grandfather. He was tall, lean, carefully dressed, and had thin brown hair that he lost as he aged. Isaac wore a mustache and a tuft of hair below his lower lip throughout life; the hair is dark in photographs from the Civil War era and white in later pictures. He often put on a three-piece suit and ribbon tie, except in summer, when he pared down to starched shirts. Among Isaac's pleasures was playing the violin. He was known to play Bach and, I believe, now and then a Virginia reel. In his later years. Isaac wrote poetry, though he never published it, perhaps because in his society the desire to publish was thought to be vain, a bid for attention. I have a few of his manuscripts. The verses consist of love lyrics to his wife, meditations on old things--one about a country church, another about rusting Confederate guns--and elegies about the Civil War, whose outcome caused him much sadness.

Dad grew up in the house where Isaac spent his last twenty years, and he had strong memories of the old man. Toward the end of his life, Isaac was nearly blind from glaucoma. As Isaac was losing his sight, Dad said, he used to shave with his eyes closed, explaining that he was rehearsing the necessity of having to shave blind. In his seventies and eighties, with pinhole vision, Isaac continued to get around town and took regular walks with a cane. Near the house where he lived, at the tip of a peninsula that forms the oldest part of Charleston, there is a delicate little park called White Point Gardens. The park contains a grove of oaks with overhanging moss and an octagonal bandstand, and is framed on two sides by the waters of Charleston harbor. Isaac would feel his way to the park and find the eastern edge of the green, where a tall seawall, known as the High Battery, stands against the tides. From this place it is possible to see, far out in the water, Fort Sumter, the old defense bulwark built on all island at the entrance to the harbor. On the morning of April 12, 1861, rebel batteries around Charleston opened fire on Federal troops stationed at the fort, loudly opening the Civil War. Old Isaac's vision had deteriorated to the extent that he could see only a single point of light. Standing on the High Battery, he would raise his cane to his shoulder like a rifle, and, aiming the stick at Fort Sumter, pretend to fire shots at the Yankees, vindicating the lost war of his youth, which robbed him of his patrimony.

My mother, Janet Rowley, born in New Orleans, also had a plantation heritage. Across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, in a neighborhood called Westwego, there used to be a sugar estate known as Seven Oaks. The sugar fields, workers, and mansion at Seven Oaks (built in 1840) were the property of one of my mother's maternal ancestors, Michael Zehringer. Zehringer's grandfather had come to Louisiana in 1720 from Franconia, a section of Bavaria; later the family changed the spelling of its name to Zeringue, the better to glide through the French-speaking caste of Louisiana slave owners. A granddaughter of the master of Seven Oaks, Marie Constance Zeringue, married a man named Yves Caesar LeCorgne. Marie and Yves had a great-granddaughter, Edna LeCorgne, my mother's Mother, whom I loved.

A yellowing photograph of the Seven Oaks mansion used to hang in the hall of our house. The picture showed a whale of a building in Greek Revival style; six two-story columns lined each of the four facades, making twenty-four Doric columns all the way around. By the time of the photograph, the plantation had long passed out of the family and stood abandoned and decrepit.

In the family of my mother's father, the Rowleys, were more slave owners. (Rowley is my middle name.) In 1834, Charles N. Rowley, my mother's great-grandfather, married a Louisiana heiress, Jane Kemp Girault, who gave him control of her 2,200-acre cotton plantation, Marengo, and seventy-six slaves. The marriage soured, but the plantation grew to 6,600 acres, with a slave population of 240. Charles Rowley later went into the military, became a commissioned officer, and when the Civil War began rose to the rank of brigadier general, commanding the Sixth Brigade of the Louisiana Militia. Charles could not hear the defeat of the Confederacy; after the war, he fled the country for Brazil, leaving behind his wife and six children to join a faction of exiled Confederates. Brazil was a sugar-producing nation where slavery would not be abolished until 1888. Maybe Charles believed that if he had remained in the United States he would have been persecuted for his role in the war, or perhaps he simply could not let go of the lifestyle of slave master. In South America, Charles Rowley evidently once again acquired human property before he died in July 1869, tit age sixty-three, in the province of Rio de Janeiro.

Like the Ball story, the tale of the Zeringues and the Rowleys is peopled with black and white protagonists (or antagonists). Although someday I may look into my Louisiana family, this story follows my father's clan, and the lives of the thousands they enslaved. Although in my early childhood our family lived in other parts of the South, in summers we paid visits to South Carolina to mingle with the relatives, and when I was nine we moved to the state. Soon Dad took my brother, Theodore Jr., and me to see the old rice plantation district the Balls once knew as their neighborhood. The three of us drove north out of Charleston on a two-lane blacktop toward the upper streams of the Cooper River, where rice grew for more than two hundred years. Thick grass swallowed the edge of the asphalt, cicadas screeched in the branches, and a skyline of pine trees scored the horizon. I remember the suffocating heat that seemed to radiate up from the ground rather than descend from the sun and the air that felt like a wet cloth on the lungs. We passed unpainted cottages belonging to black families, each house with two or three rooms, a little porch, and a pitched tin roof. On one porch sat a thin old man wearing a blue workshirt.

"There's George," said Dad, pulling the four-door to a stop.

Dad directed Ted and me to stay in the car, and I seem to remember that he wore a strained look on his face as he walked across the grass, up the three wooden steps of the porch, to shake hands with frail, black George. I thought I saw him gesturing, pointing over George's head to some mile-away place. In a moment, George and my father disappeared into the cottage. Until that day, on every occasion when my parents bumped into friends, they had introduced us, but this time Dad had left off his manners. For half an hour my brother and I sat simmering on the hot vinyl seats of the car, swatting mosquitoes. Eventually Dad emerged from the house and made his good-byes. After this encounter, the rest of the day's tour, to an old church and down some dirt lanes, felt strange. On the way back to Charleston, Dad stayed quiet about George. We retraced our route past the empty tracts where the Balls used to rule and the flora grew in reverse, thinning and clearing. I never found out anything more about George (not even his last name), or about the mysterious thing that changed the expression on Dad's face.

I went to college and settled in New York, where I began writing for newspapers and magazines. Years passed, and occasionally I visited Charleston. From time to time, the "Ball book" came down off the shelf, and when it did the plantations shadowed my dreams. The Balls lived side by side with black families for six generations, but the story, as I knew it, was divided in two. On one side stood the ancestors, vivid, serene, proud; on the other their slaves, anonymous, taboo, half human. I knew a lot about the Balls, but I never knew much about the slaves, even though on the plantations black people far outnumbered white. What were their names? How did they live? Who were their loved ones? When did they leave the plantations, and where had their descendants gone? Could their families be found? But once the book went back in the bookcase, the dreams faded.

In the mail one year came an invitation to a Ball family reunion in South Carolina. The purpose of the event, as announced by its septuagenarian organizers, was to convey the plantation story to the younger generations. Everyone, however far away, was invited home to commune with the ancestors and bathe themselves in lore. Although the Ball lands had been sold when the rice business dwindled after the end of slavery, and the fortune was long gone, documents, pictures, and above all stories remained. My memories of childhood were beginning to be released, and the invitation threw open a door in my mind. I brought out a photograph of Isaac the Confederate, Dad's grandfather, and the faceless crowd of slaves gathered once again before my eyes.

Despite my having left the South, the plantation past was etched in my unconscious. The prospect of the family reunion pushed me, finally, to come to terms with it. To contemplate slavery--which for most Americans is a mysterious, distant event--was a bit like doing psychoanalysis on myself. Did the plantations form part of my identity? By outward measure, no. The wealth created by the slave system was destroyed, and the latter-day Balls had no inheritance from it. Some of the family had manners, others none; some had money and status, some neither. But inwardly the plantations lived on. In childhood, I remember feeling an intangible sense of worth that might be linked to the old days. Part of the feeling came from the normal encouragements of parents who wanted their children to rise. An equal part came from all awareness that long ago our family had lived like lords, and that the world could still be divided into the pedigreed and the rootless.

The invitation to the family reunion sat on my desk, beckoning. No one among the Balls talked about how slavery had helped us, but whether we acknowledged it or not, the powers of our ancestors were still in hand. Although our social franchise had shrunk, it had nevertheless survived. If we did not inherit money, or land, we received a great fund of cultural capital, including prestige, a chance at education, self-esteem, a sense of place, mobility, even (in some cases) a flair for giving orders. And it was not only "us," the families of former slave owners, who carried the baggage of the plantations. By skewing things so violently in the past, we had made sure that our cultural riches would benefit all white Americans.

The subject of the plantations stirred conflicting emotions. I felt proud (how rare the stories!) and sentimental (how touching the cast of family characters!). At the same time, the slave business was a crime that had not fully been acknowledged. It would be a mistake to say that I felt guilt for the past. A person cannot be culpable for the acts of others, long dead, that he or she could not have influenced. Rather than responsible, I felt accountable for what had happened, called on to try to explain it. I also felt shame about the broken society that had washed up when the tide of slavery receded.

I decided I would make an effort, however inadequate and personal, to face the plantations, to reckon with them rather than ignore their realities or make excuses for them. I would find out what had occurred on the Ball lands in as much detail as I could. America was beginning to work through the tragic parts of its history, and the Ball name, once admired in a small corner of the country, seemed likely to become a casualty of that process, painted with infamy. Paradoxically, by describing as honestly as possible what the family had done, I might clear some space around our name, and around us.

When finally I chose to look into the slave past, I felt a remarkable calm, and the rest of the path seemed clear. To complete the legacy, I would try to find descendants of the slaves. The plantation heritage was not "ours," like a piece of family property, and not "theirs," belonging to black families, but a shared history. The progeny of slaves and the progeny of slave owners are forever linked. We have been in each other's lives. We have been in each other's dreams. We have been in each other's beds. As I prepared to go back to South Carolina, I thought we should meet, share our recollections, feelings, and dreams, and make the story whole.

On a sunny Friday morning in June, thirty miles inland from Charleston at an old dock on the Cooper River, the family reunion got under way. Some 150 relatives from around the state and scattered parts of the country climbed aboard a chartered boat for a tour of the river where the Ball plantations once stood and where their remnants still moldered on the banks. Many wore shorts and T-shirts in the Carolina heat, though a few women turned out in heels and jewelry. The youngest was less than a year, the eldest eighty-eight. Reeds brushed against the hull of the double-deck boat and greetings and laughter echoed over the water as each Ball walked the gangplank and made a little jump onto the deck. My brother, Ted, and his wife, Pam Taylor, came from Louisiana.

The engine turned over and we took our seats. In a moment the skipper rounded a bend in the river and we came in sight of the oldest Ball place, Comingtee plantation. It was here that the founder of the family, the first Elias Ball, came from England to live in the year 1698. (The name Elias Ball would be used for many future sons, including Wambaw Elias, the Tory who moved back to England two generations later.) The ruined brick hulk of the rice mill at Comingtee stood within plain sight. Sticking out of the mud near the riverbank were pieces of rotting wood shaped like the headboards of beds--the sluices that once controlled the flow of water onto the rice fields.

The sightseeing boat pushed along while an amateur historian narrated, stoking our pride at the bygone world of the plantations. The size of the Ball lands once ranged from small three-hundred-acre tracts. worked by thirty or forty field hands, to giant estates of three or four thousand acres, with hundreds of slaves. Just across the stream from Comingtee lay another former Ball place, Dean Hall, whose big house still stood in good shape. Some of the South's plantations were now used as second homes by wealthy families, but many had been swept away. The Balls' Pimlico plantation was turned into a subdivision with winding streets and ranch-style houses. A few miles up the river lay two old Ball tracts, Kensington and Hyde Park, whose buildings were mostly gone. Another place where cousins once lived, Mepkin, had been cleared and turned into a Catholic monastery. A forestry company had bought much of the family land and planted pine trees. We peered out over the water and murmured at our broken heritage.

In the slave days the rice fields lay at the edge of the river. Each plot was surrounded by a "rice bank," art earthen levee several feet high and perhaps two hundred yards long on four sides of the field. The remnants of rice banks, eroded by the current, lay submerged in the water, presenting obstacles for boats, and a hull with a draft of more than a couple of feet could easily run aground. As the double-decker headed for another bend, it lurched and teetered on one of the rice banks. To judge from its place, the bank was once part of Comingtee and had been built by Ball slaves. The pilot tried to dislodge his vessel, stuck in the muck where the slaves had worked, but the helpless engine made hoarse guttural sounds. Half an hour passed, then an hour.

"We're spending more time in the rice fields than our ancestors ever did!" one cousin joked.

The decision came to abandon ship, and several speedboats pulled alongside to help. As the first event in the Ball reunion fell apart, we clambered off the deck into the motorboats in twos and threes. The rescue operation ferried us away from the rice fields, back to firm land.

I moved from New York back to Charleston to carry out the search. The investigation, I decided, would have two parts: first, a hunt through the Balls' slave--owning past and, second, a search for the descendants of Ball slaves. This double search--at a distance of many generations and through the mists of segregation and distrust--seemed daunting to say the least.

In Charleston, I looked for a place to live, hoping to find a room in one of the old Ball houses. During slavery, the family had more than a dozen city residences in addition to the plantations out of town. In the early 1800s, the townhouse of Elias Ball, founder of the family, had been sold away and was later knocked down. In 1838, three houses burned in a fire. Most of the rest were wiped aside in waves of demolition that began in the 1900s. But a handful of the old Ball houses remained. There was a wooden one near the northwest corner of Ashley and Bull streets that belonged to a family member in the 1850s, as well as a three-story brick house on the northwest corner of East Bay Street and Stoll's Alley, occupied in the 1830s by an heiress named Ann Ball.

A cousin who worked in a bank offered to help the find a place to live. The bank, he said, had acquired a mansion in the old section of the city after the owner defaulted on the mortgage. It was run-down and neglected, but I could use the house until someone bought it. Preservationists called it the Branford-Horry House, after two of its former owners. It stood in a row of mansions on Meeting Street, the main avenue through the historic core of Charleston, on the northwest corner where Meeting intersects Tradd Street. Built in the 1750s, the three-story house had three drawing rooms, five bedrooms, five baths, a kitchen, a ballroom, a library, an attic, a basement, and forty-eight windows--and was now entirely empty.

My new Charleston home had no resemblance to my former New York apartment. Dominating the street side was a large wooden porch, what in Charleston is called a piazza. It emerged from second-floor height and hung out over the sidewalk, where five columns stood against the curb to hold the thing in the air. A second colonnade on the piazza supported a pediment, which gave the face of the building the look of a furrowed brow. The house was roughly square, the brick walls two feet thick, covered with beige stucco that was cracked and chipping away. Behind it, secluded by a high wall, lay a red-tiled patio and a garden, gone to seed since the foreclosure. The front door opened into a wide central hallway, on either side of which were large folding doors that gave into drawing rooms. The rooms were moldering, the air thick and bacterial. Puffs of ancient dirt breathed front crevices between the floorboards, and everywhere was peeling paint and water-stained plaster. Down the main hall lay the best-kept room, the library. Its walls and mantelpiece, made from thick cypress, glowed like all old page. A staircase rose front the hall, with a loud squeak in the seventh step. The ballroom on the second floor was lined with more cypress, broken up here and there by fluted pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals. Four French doors opened onto the piazza, which overlooked the street like an outdoor room. Elsewhere were two bedrooms, another drawing room, bathrooms, and, on the top floor, three more bedrooms, baths, a laundry. Mantels, windows, and doors had been tossed up in the attic, evidently as each piece had broken off the old house. I moved in with a bed, bookshelf, and two tables, which became the only furniture in the building.

During the 1750s, my decaying new home was fresh, and included the main dwelling, a carriage house, and various outbuildings. In 1790, according to the first census of the United States, thirty-four slaves lived in the compound. The workforce, whose names the census enumerator did not record, belonged to a family of eight whites in the mansion. It was the largest number of slaves living at any address in the city.

Slave owners rarely became artists. Despite their leisure, they did not paint pictures or perform music apart from recitals at home. They wrote, but only for a few readers. Rather than make art, slave owners collected things. They assembled people, land, and facts about both.

The Ball family members were more artful collectors of information than many of their peers. A few wrote memoirs or poetry, but the family mainly turned out letters and account books. The letters chronicled their lives, while the accounts detailed the rice business and the family's human property. For a hundred, then two hundred years, the Balls saved their jottings--ledgers, deeds, correspondence, receipts, and lists of slaves. First there were stacks of papers, then boxes and finally trunks. Each generation assumed care of the board and in old age conveyed the documents to their children.

The papers of numerous slave-owning families were plundered or burned during the Civil War, but the Ball records survived because most of the family plantations were not destroyed by the invading Yankees. At the start of the 1900s, the family began to deposit the lode in archives around the South, until nearly all of them came to rest in public hands. Historians call them the "Ball Family Papers," more than ten thousand pages housed in four libraries. The earliest page is an inventory of property from the year 1631. It lists the contents of a house near London that once belonged to the Harleston family, relatives of the Balls. The last letters date from three hundred years later in America, after the rice fields were put to rest.

For me to understand the plantation story and find the descendants of the slaves, the written record would have to provide the map. Oral tradition suffers from scarcity and omission. Among the Ball family members, who overflow with legend, memory became selective over time. The same no doubt happened among black families as each drifted farther from the plantation. Though the paper record had gaps, it answered the need for detail better than hearsay could.

Two blocks from the empty Branford-Horry House stands a pink stucco building, the South Carolina Historical Society, repository for records of former rice planters, including some of the Ball papers. Every morning, I walked to the cobblestone block of the library to read the family records, housed in climate-controlled rooms like specimens of an extinct bird.

At the beginning were two questions: Who were the Ball Family? And who were the Ball slaves?

In the old days, a Ball household began simply enough, with a wedding. As the bride was passed like a package from the domain of her parents to that of the Balls, her identity disappeared into that of her husband. The new Mrs. Ball might own land or slaves (the two did not always come together), and a village of people could be her dowry. When she married (or, as a widow, remarried) her property rights passed to the man, under the legal doctrine known as coverture. The rule of coverture meant that in the eyes of the law a couple would appear as a single person, the husband, whose identity substituted for that of his wife. While keeping a hand on the transfer of property, traditional patriarchal marriage was also a way to manage sex, making sure neither the family name nor belongings would stray. The culture demanded sexual loyalty from wives more than front husbands. With all this, the Ball men owned most of the people, controlled most of the land, and left behind most of the records.

The mistress of each plantation did not have full command over the slave farm but became a co-master with her husband, using power as she was able. Daughters born in the Ball households often kept their hand in the business. Some signed a prenuptial agreement that preserved their property rights when they left to marry, and they affected the families they joined. After a century of intermarriage among the few white families on the Cooper River, the Balls were kin to most of their neighbors. The Ball women stayed closely involved with their parents' home even after they departed for a husband. Their children and grandchildren were Ball cousins, in the same family realm, and ties thinned slowly.

A workable definition of the Ball family for the purposes of my investigation soon appeared: they were men and women born with the name, women who took the name Ball with marriage, and one generation of the offspring of Ball daughters who had acquired another surname.

The Ball slaves were easier to define. Simply, Ball slaves were people owned by members of the Ball family whose, lives could be traced in the surviving files.

(CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES)

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Interviews & Essays

On Wednesday, February 3rd, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Edward Ball to discuss SLAVES IN THE FAMILY.


Moderator: Thanks for joining us this evening, Edward Ball. It is an honor for us to be chatting with one of the 1998 National Book Award winners. How are you this evening?

Edward Ball: I am very well, thanks. Pleasure to be here.


Ellen Wood from Portland, ME: What was the original inspiration behind SLAVES IN THE FAMILY? How did the book evolve once you started writing?

Edward Ball: I was raised in the South but settled in New York and became a journalist. The stories I heard as a child from my father about the Ball plantations rattled in my mind even as I had become a Yankee. One year I received an invitation to a Ball family reunion to be held in Charleston, and I attended. That was the beginning of my book. It took three years to write it, and at the start I thought it would be mostly about the descendants of the Ball slaves and Ball plantation owners, but it evolved into a book that is half history -- in other words, about the black and white people on the plantations -- and half journalism, about the living legacy of the slave days.


Rex from Elizabeth City: How many of your black relatives were you able to locate? After the book was published, did more contact you?

Edward Ball: I heard from half a dozen families while doing research that their ancestors included some of my ancestors, but I confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt using written records, photographic evidence, and circumstantial evidence that two of the families were distant cousins. The others might be but I wasn't able to find enough evidence to stand up in a court, so to speak. Each of the families I found, of course, might have 25 to 75 people in it, and of them I met just a handful. It is small step, but it has been worthwhile. A few more have contacted me since the book was published.


Berry Marshall from Baltimore, MD: I also share your heritage, since my paternal great-grandparents were slave owners in Charleston. Your beautiful book gets to the essence of slavery and what it did to both the enslaved and their owners in a way that many of Colonial Williamsburg's reenactments of 18th-century Virginia slavery do. Are you aware of these programs? And if so, what do you think of them?

Edward Ball: I have seen some of the "living history" portrayals of enslaved people at Williamsburg, and depending on the actor, I think that they are strong and worthwhile. Of course, there is the danger that history becomes another Disney entertainment, but for large numbers of people, reenactments are the most compelling image they have of what the plantation society was like.


Claire Peters from Mississippi: You had to be somewhat of a detective to write SLAVES IN THE FAMILY. What was the most reliable way of tracking down Ball descendants?

Edward Ball: I started with oral tradition from black families, and I verified their connection to the Ball plantations by linking the surnames of their ancestors during Reconstruction to families who had not yet gotten surnames on the Ball plantations. The way to do this is to compare the family groups at the end of the Civil War in the plantation account books to family groups in the first federal census after the war, 1870, where the same households appear, now with surnames.


Connie Taylor from Richmond, CA: Are some of your relatives still angry with you for writing SLAVES IN THE FAMILY? How do they feel about your National Book Award?

Edward Ball: I would describe our family as bruised but healing. Some relatives, when my book was published, were close to being checked into the cardiac unit. But blood pressure has gone down in our clan. I think that none of us, including myself, have actually liked the experience of coming out as a slave-owning family, with all the necessary honesty and admissions that that has entailed. The National Book Award has soothed our nerves and helped give my work credibility among my kin, and perhaps among other former slave-owning families like mine.


Greg from Petersburg: Did you experience any sort of personal transformation during the writing of this book? I would think that some of the things that you discovered about your family would lend itself to introspection.

Edward Ball: I feel better now than when I started. I know better who I am, and I have tried to incorporate my family's legacy into my sense of self, whereas previously, like tens of millions of Americans, I shunned the hard part of our story -- the violence, the sexual exploitation, the purchase and sale of children -- preferring to believe these had nothing to do with me. Acknowledging even the worst things is liberating.


Emily from Williamsburg, VA: Your book is fascinating and is a good companion to Phil Morgan's work on slavery in the Chesapeake and South Carolina. Are you familiar with Morgan's book, SLAVE COUNTERPOINT, and have you two met and discussed your similar topic?

Edward Ball: I know Phil Morgan but haven't seen him in a couple years. He is a credentialed scholar whose work I drew on in writing SLAVES IN THE FAMILY. He manages to describe the everyday lives of people who lived in anonymity and in suffocating circumstances in a way that gives them the autonomy and social role they deserve in our memory.


Ken from Washington, D.C.: Why do you think there weren't more slave uprisings on the Ball plantations?

Edward Ball: I counted three or perhaps four plots that nearly erupted on the Ball lands. They decreased in frequency with each generation in part because people were born into slavery and knew nothing else. Acts of sabotage and running away -- both done by individuals, not groups -- seem to replace schemes for mass uprisings as time passed. The Ball slaves can not be said to have been "content," but perhaps they recognized the futility of their situation.


Zoe from Kansas: I understand that your research took you to West Africa. What kind of reception did you find there?

Edward Ball: I identified three families in Sierra Leone, a country of four million that is now in civil war, whose ancestors had been slave sellers and who almost certainly had a connection to the Ball plantations via their family business. Each family was among the elite of the country, and each was defensive about my questions concerning their legacy as slave catchers, and yet each tried honestly to reckon with the pointed questions I brought, welcoming me into their houses and sharing their stories, some reaching back two centuries, about their involvement in the slave trade. It was an important exercise, but much of West Africa is unprepared to acknowledge any complicity in the world's slave traffic.


Dale from Springfield, Ohio: Did you have any resistance from the black or white side of the Ball family in doing this work?

Edward Ball: I did, and it was impossible to predict when it would come. Not all black people feel the same about the legacy of slavery, and not all descendants of slave owners feel one way. Sometimes I touched off anger that erupted like a land mine. If this happened, then after two or three attempts to reach through the resistance failed, then I left people alone.


Rachel from Norwalk, OH: How does one even begin to apologize for slavery? How did you apologize to the descendants?

Edward Ball: It happened very naturally in the course of getting to know two families while writing this book. I did not apologize to each of the families that I met, because this would have been artificial and disingenuous. With two families, however, we knew enough about each other and had developed a sufficient emotional bond that it seemed natural and appropriate. I apologized just as anyone would ask for forgiveness for a terrible wrong. I said how deeply sorry I was for the damage and hurt that my family had caused their family, and I asked their forgiveness. I also said that I knew words were not enough, that they were merely a bandage on a deep wound. And yet words might be the start of a process of reconciliation between our families. That was at least my small hope.


Dennis from Atlanta: How can we start a real conversation on race and racial disparity in this country? And in your opinion, Mr. Ball, because of the legacy of slavery, will American ever be a harmonious melting pot?

Edward Ball: My pessimistic "night thoughts" are that what happened between black folks and white was so nightmarish that we will not have a national reconciliation of any honesty in the next couple of generations. But I have seen person-to-person and family-to-family healing, and I think that this grassroots repair is powerful and within reach for most people. Just as Jews are aware of the shadow of the Holocaust in their lives, and just as black people are made aware of the shadow of slavery and Jim Crow in their lives, we as white people have to try to think of ourselves as members of a race and acknowledge what we have done collectively. Individual acts of reconciliation between white folks and black are the most powerful and the best we have to work with.


Mark from Pittsburg: How does it feel to join the elite group of National Book Award winners -- with your first book? Is it intimidating? Daunting?

Edward Ball: Funny, I don't feel elite, as in riding around in a convertible, but of course, it is gratifying, especially when writers spend three-plus years, as I did, on one book, usually without any guarantee of recognition. After the National Book Award, the phone rang for a month, then it quieted. I am grateful to the National Book Foundation for their unexpected and flattering decision.


Ramone from New York: What was one of the most surprising things that you uncovered when researching this book?

Edward Ball: I was surprised to learn that the most esteemed ancestor in our family tree, a man called Henry Laurens, who was president of the Second Continental Congress during the American Revolution and one of the delegates in the peace-treaty negotiations in Paris with the British, was not what he appeared to be. Known to all of us as a successful merchant, Laurens was the largest slave importer in British North America, and his fortune and social position were built upon the purchase and sale of more than 10,000 people in the years before the Revolutionary War. Although this may appear to be a personal family story, it is not unlike the legacies of other founding fathers. I think we have to paint a picture of our national identity that is both tragic and heroic, leaving in all the hard parts.


Moderator: Thank you so much for joining us tonight, Edward Ball, and congratulations on the National Book Award! It's truly been a pleasure having you with us. Before you go, do you have any closing comments for your online audience?

Edward Ball: Thank you for the invitation. For everyone out there -- throw open the family closet and drag all the skeletons into the sunlight. It will help everybody.


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Reading Group Guide

1. In the interview accompanying this guide, Edward Ball and Sonya Fordham discuss what they learned about slavery in school. What did you learn about slavery in school? How much of what you learned and what was taught was influenced by where you grew up, your own race, or the race of your teachers?

2. What did you learn about slavery and the history of African-Americans in America from this book that you did not already know? What surprised you about what you learned? 3. Do you feel the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s succeeded? Why or why not? What impact has the movement had on your life?

4. The subject of reparations for the descendants of slaves is one that Ball and Fordham touch upon in their interview. What are your feelings about reparations? What are the arguments for and against paying reparations in your view?

5. Do you know of a history of slavery in your own family, and if so, would you do as Edward Ball has and try to contact descendants of the slaves or the descendants of slave owners? Why would you want to contact them? What reaction would you expect?

6. Were you surprised by any of the reactions Ball received from descendants he contacted and met? Why or why not?

7. In one of his conversations with Leon Smalls, Ball asks Smalls if it is better to talk about the past and get it out in the open, or keep things in the past and let them rest (p. 126). Do you agree with Smalls's response that it's better to talk about and confront the past?

8. Much of Ball's story took place in or around Charleston, South Carolina, and his conversation with Fordham further discusses the community in Charleston today. How do whites,African-Americans, Asians, and people of other races interact in your community? Are there still traces of slavery's influence in your community? Have race relations in your community changed in your lifetime? What factors contributed to any changes? How is your community different from or similar to the portrait Fordham and Ball paint of Charleston?

9. Many people say, "Don't talk to me about slavery, because my family came to America after the Civil War." What do you reply to Ball's statement that white families who came to the United States after the end of slavery struggled, especially immigrants who arrived via Ellis Island; but that these families also benefited from the inheritance of slavery, because they entered a caste society, created by racism, that gave white immigrants better housing, education, and jobs than native-born black Americans and lifted whites into the middle class?

10. What is your opinion of Ball's view that white Americans are not responsible for the slave past, but they are accountable for it; that they are obliged to come to terms with it, because slavery not only did damage to many Americans, but it also shaped what it means to be white?

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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2011

    My story

    My name is chiemeka egwu, and i can remember ed coming by and talking to my great grand mother, grandmother and mother and I about our famly stories. The out come of Edwriting this book is that I now no ore about my history and i have an extended family that i love. Since the writing of this book, my great grandmother emily has passed and my grand mother luzena has alzhiemer. with this book i will have a written history of my family to pass along to my childre. Thank you ed for having the courage to write this. It is truelya mustread for everyone.....

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  • Posted October 24, 2010

    Thank you Mr. Ball

    I've read this book twice and have referred to it several times in the last 10 years while doing my own genealogy research. Being a South Carolinian and decendent of slaves, this book is very dear to me. I appreciate the time and effort Mr. Ball put into this book with all it's wonderful details and illustrations. It helped me better understand plantation family relations, communities and practices thus improving my researching skills.

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  • Posted March 3, 2009

    From the mouth of a Harleston

    This book is what is needed for us to move foward together.It helps to foster a greater understanding. However it does not bring closure. That closure requires the ability to forgive which is personal and spiritual in nature.Yet, it stimulates the process if the individual is open to change. Ones heart must be prepared for this book, lest they be consumed by its flames.

    brett harleston

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 19, 2005

    A Step Towards Closure:

    If all of America take a brave step as this author has done; then there may just be a closure for blacks & whites on the devastating, horrible issue of slavery. Such a step could likely end the race issues that continue to permeate this country.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2002

    Brave Writing

    Balls' ability to face his family's past and at the same time not to carry a guilt trip around with him today is remarkable. Hard to imagine anyone vaguely interested in history would put this book down unfinshed. A complete triumph.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2002

    Way to go, Ball!!

    I thouroughly enjoyed this book; it held my attention for hours on end. Ball's research opened the doors of history and shined light on subjects long since abandoned by every-day historians. I am thankful for his bravery, for without him these mysteries would;ve been forever be unsolved and these people would've been forever forgotten.

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    Posted November 20, 2008

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    Posted August 5, 2010

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    Posted April 21, 2009

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