Slaves in the Family

Slaves in the Family

4.5 11
by Robert Edward Ball

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Slaves in the Family is the winner of the 1998 National Book Award for nonfiction and hailed by The New Yorker as "a brilliant blend of archival research and oral history." First-time author and award-winning journalist Edward Ball confronts the legacy of his family's slave-owning past, uncovering the story of the people, both black and white, who


Slaves in the Family is the winner of the 1998 National Book Award for nonfiction and hailed by The New Yorker as "a brilliant blend of archival research and oral history." First-time author and award-winning journalist Edward Ball confronts the legacy of his family's slave-owning past, uncovering the story of the people, both black and white, who lived and worked on the Balls' South Carolina plantations. It is an unprecedented family record that reveals how the painful legacy of slavery continues to endure in America's collective memory and experience.

Author Edward Ball, a descendant of one of the largest slave-owning families in the South, discovered that his ancestors owned 25 rice plantations, worked by nearly 4,000 slaves. In Slaves in the Family, he confronts his past -- scouring family archives, parish records, telephone directories, and historical-society collections. Ball's fact-finding took him slogging not only down the back roads of Carolina's low country but also to West Africa to meet the descendants of the traders who sold slaves to the family.

Through meticulous research and by interviewing scattered relatives, Ball contacted some 100,000 African-Americans living in the U.S. today who are all descendants of Ball slaves. In intimate conversations with them, he garnered information, hard words, and devastating family stories of precisely what it means to be enslaved. He found that the family plantation owners were far from benevolent patriarchs; instead there is a dark history of exploitation, interbreeding, and extreme violence against the slaves.

Slaves in the Family is an extraordinary and poignant account of interwoven lives and one man's effort to come to terms with his disturbing family legacy and his nation's past.

Editorial Reviews

New Yorker
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Charlotte Painter
Everyone should read and learn from this luminous book. -- San Francisco Sunday Examiner
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
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.
The New Yorker
"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
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.

Product Details

DIANE Publishing Company
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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 wetleaves.

"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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Slaves in the Family 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
dreplogle More than 1 year ago
Absolutely remarkable work, especially in light of the recent South Caroline shootings. This is a highly readable account of the growth of slavery in one man's family. South Carolina, and Charleston in particular was the major port where Africans were brought in to be sold as slaves. The author, who grew up knowing his family had large plantations and was part of a family who used to be very wealthy. But he was never taught about his family gained and kept that wealth. This is his investigative journey to finding out that his ancestral family was one of the largest slaveholders in the country, having up to 4000 slaves. As luck would have it, h is family kept records of their business, archived in several collections, and the author was able to piece together a history, and a genealogy of his white ancestors, and their black holdings. The author also seeks out the black and mulatto descendants of his family's plantations. While we as Americans, know about slavery in our history, this work brings us closer to understanding it, and how it worked and the impact it left. This copy of the book which I received through the GoodReads program, is a 2014 revised edition of the 1998 work. It won the National Book Award, and I don't think enough superlatives can be attached to it. It was a work taking a lot of courage and understanding.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read Slaves in the Family when it first came out and was so caught up in the story of Mr. Ball's family and slavery. I also heard Mr. Ball speak at a lecture on the book. Highly recommend the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.....
Daylyte More than 1 year ago
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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Brett786 More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.