From the Publisher
“Powerful.” The New York Times Book Review
“Gripping.” The Boston Globe
“Brilliant.” The New Yorker
“A landmark book.” San Francisco Chronicle
“Everyone should read and learn from this luminous book...[Slaves in the Family] is not only honest in its scrupulous reporting but also personal narrative at its finest.” San Francisco Chronicle
“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
“Much more than bare history...It's the human encounters, and the live, breathing juxtaposition of past and present, that give [Edward Ball's] book its vibrancy and importance.” Detroit Free Press
“A masterpiece . . . 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
“[An] unblinking history not only of [Edward Ball's] ancestors but also of the people they held as slaves . . . It reminds us of our common humanity and of the ties that still bind us, no matter what the wounds of the past.” The Philadelphia Inquirer
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
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 irrelevantthough 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 ancestrya 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.
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 FAMILYwere 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 itsome 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.