Sweet Hell Inside: A Family History


With the panoramic story of one "colored elite" family who rises from the ashes of the Civil War to create an American cultural dynasty Edward Ball offers the historical and, literary successor to his highly acclaimed Slaves in the Family, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 1998 National Book Award.

The Sweet Hell Inside recounts the lives of the Harleston family of South Carolina, the progeny of a Southern gentleman and his slave who cast off their blemished roots ...

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With the panoramic story of one "colored elite" family who rises from the ashes of the Civil War to create an American cultural dynasty Edward Ball offers the historical and, literary successor to his highly acclaimed Slaves in the Family, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 1998 National Book Award.

The Sweet Hell Inside recounts the lives of the Harleston family of South Carolina, the progeny of a Southern gentleman and his slave who cast off their blemished roots and achieved affluence in part through a surprisingly successful funeral parlor business. Their wealth afforded the Harlestons the comfort of chauffeurs, tailored clothes, and servants whose skin was darker than theirs. It also launched the family into a generation of glory as painters, performers, and photographers in the "high yellow" society of America's colored upper class. The Harlestons' remarkable one-hundred-year journey spans the waning days of Reconstruction, the precious art world of the early 1900s, the back alleys of the Jazz Age, and the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Enhanced by the recollections of the family's archivist, eighty-four-year-old Edwina Harleston Whitlock — whose bloodline the author sharesThe Sweet Hell Inside features a portrait artist whose subjects included industrialist Pierre Du Pont; a black classical composer in the Lost Generation of 1920s Paris; an orphanage founder who created a famous brass band from the ranks of his abandoned waifs, a number of whom went on to burgeoning careers in jazz; and a Harleston mistress who doubled as an abortionist.

With evocative and engrossing storytelling, Edward Ball introduces a cast of historical characters rarely seen before: cultured, vain, imperfect, rich, and black, a family made up of eccentrics who defied social convention yet whose advantages could not protect them from segregation's locked doors, a plague of early death, and the stigma of children born outside marriage.

The Sweet Hell Inside raises the curtain on a unique family drama in the pageant of American life and uncovers a fascinating lost world.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
The explosion of the memoir form in recent years has led to a deluge of family histories. But Edward Ball's fascinating book is something different. It tells the epic story of the Harleston family of Charleston, South Carolina -- relatively affluent mixed-race blacks who trace their roots to the illicit relationship between a plantation heir and his slave, and are distantly related to Ball, a white southerner by birth. Through interviews with Edwina Harleston Whitlock, the genteel grandmother who unlocks the secrets of the Harleston archives, Ball interweaves the rich and sometimes tragic family history along with the broad sweep of contemporary events, from the Civil War and Reconstruction through the First World War and Jim Crow laws.

As members of the mixed-race elite, the Harlestons occupied a strange interstitial zone between resentful blacks and snobbish whites -- a zone that was especially well defined in conservative Charleston. They viewed themselves as part of the "talented tenth," following W.E.B. Du Bois's conception of a small group of privileged African Americans leading the rest. But this promoted a fortress mentality and "more than its share of anxiety and wounded pride." It was the "sweet hell inside" of the book's title: a defiant sense of permanent exclusion from both camps, which governed relations between the family and those around it.

The family ran several funeral homes in and around Charleston, but several of its members pushed out into unfamiliar territory. "From their beginnings as the discarded children of a case of 'miscegenation,' the Harleston family rose to play strange and wonderful roles in the American pageant," Ball writes. Edwin "Teddy" Harleston, Edwina's melancholy grandfather, became a well-regarded portrait painter who worked alongside his photographer wife. When Teddy entered Boston's Museum School in 1906, he was one of a handful of serious black art students in the United States. He later returned to Charleston to work in the family business and founded a local chapter of the NAACP. Edmund "Jenks" Jenkins was a classically trained composer who played in the jazz bands of 1920s Paris. Another Harleston relative ran a Charleston orphanage that became famous for its associated musical group, the Jenkins Orphanage Band, which toured Europe and sent several alumni into the New York jazz scene.

While chronicling the rich history of the Harlestons in staggering detail -- thanks to archival research and diligent perusal of letters and scrapbooks -- Ball offers interesting disquisitions on everything from the etymology of the word "jazz" to the process of embalming a cadaver. The Sweet Hell Inside is itself a fascinating attempt to preserve an unusual slice of the American experience -- in all its painful ambivalence. (Jonathan Cook)

Jonathan Cook lives in New York City.

From The Critics
The idea for this follow-up to 1998's Slaves in the Family came after Edwina Harleston Whitlock, an eighty-four-year-old Atlanta woman of mixed race, contacted the author to tell him they were distant relatives. The keeper of her family's papers, she had a storeroom full of records that told the rich, multigenerational story of her "colored elite" family, the Harlestons. One member helped run an orphanage that nurtured some early jazz musicians. Another became a celebrated portraitist. Despite (or perhaps because of) the family connection, Ball approaches his subject as a historian, not a descendant. The author's writing is often workmanlike, but it does hit the occasional high. Family matriarch Kate Wilson Harleston was buried beneath a gravestone that conveniently offered no indication of her marital status. "About their white roots," Ball writes, "the Harleston children could be silent as the tomb."
—James Sullivan

Publishers Weekly
In researching the bestseller Slaves in the Family (1998), Ball encountered William Harleston (1804-1874), a white man whose family considered him a bachelor though he lived for 25 years with Kate Wilson, his former slave, on and around the South Carolina rice plantation where he was born. They had eight children (born between 1843 and 1867) whose family history is recounted here largely via the memories of Edwina Harleston Whitlock (b. 1916), Ball's previously unknown relation, who referenced the "little red book" and "snippets of letters, handwritten copies of wills and genealogical charts" passed on to her by an uncle. Covering nearly 200 years, Ball's book tells "a tale of black and white sex in America, and its latter-day harvest," distinguished by remarkable family accomplishments and sprinkled with diverting scandal. By 19th-century standards, William and Kate's sons were educated professionals (butler, housepainter, tailor); their daughters married well. Their son Edwin's undertaking business brought wealth and status, affording the next generation a good education and the means to pursue the arts, teaching and social work. More fame arrived when Edwin's daughter married Daniel Joseph Jenkins, "a dark minister who was born a slave," who became founder of the orphanage in Charleston that spawned the Jenkins Orphanage Band, a force in the development of jazz. Ball's somewhat uneven work often digresses into such subjects as the history of jazz, the Harlem Renaissance and even embalming. A genealogical chart would have benefited readers, and scholars will find the notes a thorny grab bag. But Ball's mosaic illuminates the Harlestons' "little-known but fascinating role in the Americannational saga." More than 60 photos not seen by PW. (Oct.) Forecast: Given the attention paid Ball's previous book and the currency of his subject, especially following the Jefferson-Hemings story, this one should attract strong attention and approach the sales of its predecessor. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Ball, who won the National Book Award for Slaves in the Family, returns to his Southern roots to find the Harlestons, part of the small "colored elite" of Charleston, and tell their story from the 1840s through 2000. It is a remarkable journey, with Ball tracking the family and their connections from the racially and culturally cloistered South Carolina to London, Paris, New York, Chicago, and many other stops. Family members won fame and modest if sometimes fleeting fortunes as undertakers, ministers, musicians, artists, and more. Especially significant was the Jenkins Orphanage Band, which escaped Charleston in high-stepping style and became an early forebear of ragtime and jazz. Ball sometimes overplays his sources in speculating on motives and relationships. But his background excursions into black urban life and economy and his accounts of musicians, intellectuals, and artists struggling to find their way among black and white make real the hidden world(s) of an "in-between class" too long in the shadows of history and memory. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/01.] Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A welcome sequel, of sorts, to Ball's well-received Slaves in the Family (1998). In the former study, journalist Ball examined the interwoven histories of his South Carolinian family and the descendants of slaves his ancestors once held. Here, Ball focuses on one many-branched family, the Harlestons, founded in the 1840s in what was once termed an act of miscegenation between the white farmer William Harleston and a slave named Kate Wilson. Both parties suffered ostracism for the union, and their children were denied legal recognition and public schooling. Forever outsiders-Ball writes of photographs of them, "There is pride in the way they hold themselves, but in their eyes there is a gleam of insecurity, as though something about life isn't right"-the Harleston children and their descendants went on to make distinguished careers, joining the lower ranks of the "colored aristocracy." One became a mortician, founding a business confined, owing to 19th-century Jim Crow laws, to an African-American and mixed-race clientele. The mortician's daughter married a minister who organized the orphans under his charge into musical groups; the minister earned a handsome living from the receipts, while some of the orphans, such as Freddie Green and Jabbo Smith, went on to play with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. Other Harleston descendants and kin became writers, composers, and painters, making their mark in Harlem and Paris as well as Charleston. If any of them were ordinary, Ball doesn't say, though he takes care not to idealize. Throughout, he writes affectingly of their unusual hardships, as well as the difficulties of some descendants, even today, in claiming kinship across oncesharply marked ethnic boundaries. An illuminating chapter in the history of African-American family life, and in the American story generally.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780688168407
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 11/1/1901
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Edward Ball was born in Georgia, raised in the South, and worked in New York as an art critic. His first book, Slaves in the Family, told the story of his search for the descendants of his ancestors' slaves. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife, Elizabeth.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

William Harleston was born in 1804 at The Hut, a plantation owned by his parents, twenty-five miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. The Hut was one of several assets in a Harleston dynasty of land and slaves. (Other family estates were named Rice Hope and Richmond.) Few records have survived from William Harleston's youth. Even his birth date is in question — the year is known, but there is no record of the day — as though it had been clipped from memory. A genealogy states that he was one of five children, with three older sisters, Hannah, Sarah, and Constantia, and one younger brother, John. As a boy growing up on The Hut, a one-thousand-acre rice plantation with about sixty slaves, William would have passed his youth in ways appropriate to his class and sex: he hunted deer and fished, was schooled in classics and mathematics by private tutors, and attended the glittering society balls held every winter in nearby Charleston. The Harleston family's holdings made his life indolent and luxurious.

Despite its many comforts, William's childhood was strained by high expectations, because he carried the unusual burden of a heroic family legacy handed down by his father. In the 1770s, a quarter of a century before William's birth, the Harlestons had fought bravely during the Revolutionary War. William's father, William Harleston Sr., and his uncle Isaac had both risked everything to win American independence. Only twenty when the war began, William Senior served as an infantryman before returning to the family lands to help supply food to American soldiers; but Isaac, then in histhirties, passed through an extraordinary war. Isaac Harleston had left his plantation, which was known as Irishtown, to become a captain in one of the earliest fights of the conflict, the Battle of Fort Sullivan, on June 28, 1776, a deadly assignment during which a few hundred American patriots repulsed an attack on Charleston by a flotilla of British warships. After that American victory, the British left the South alone for two years. In the meantime, Isaac loaned the revolutionary movement sixty-five hundred pounds, putting muscle in the phrase of the Declaration of Independence, "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Six months after the loan, in 1778, the British returned, and Isaac was elevated to the rank of major in command of the Sixth Regiment of the Continental army. He fought for eighteen months in various campaigns, but in May 1780 Isaac was in Charleston when it fell to the British, and he was taken prisoner. While many rebels now swore allegiance to the Crown in order to escape punishment, Major Harleston stayed true to the cause. Eventually Isaac was released to a victor's welcome and returned to quiet citizenship. He died in 1798.

To be an heir to such patriotism gave young William Harleston of The Hut the aura of an American prince.

As he grew up, William seemed ready to take his natural place in the elite circle of slaveholding landlords. But his own father foreshadowed another outcome when, adding to his white children, the elder William had a mixed-race son, born to one of his slaves. The name of the boy's mother has not survived, but the child was given the name Isaac, after the war hero. Although there was a taboo against interracial sex, in reality ruling-class men often had brown children with their black slaves. As long as the children were kept away from white relatives, and the taboo received lip service, silence about the offspring could be maintained. But this was not the case with Isaac.

Family tradition describes Isaac as a short brown man. Born a slave in the 1780s, the illicit Isaac grew up at The Hut and at some point was evidently given his freedom. However, instead of leaving the vicinity, a frequent outcome in such cases, Isaac stayed right in the thick of family business. He became a steward on a riverboat that his Harleston relatives used, then married and fathered three children of his own, the first of whom (his name was Edward) settled on the Harleston plantation known as Rice Hope. Rice Hope stood about a mile from The Hut, which meant that the young William, as an impressionable child, had ample time to see and speak to the living fruit of his father's wayward sexuality.

In South Carolina, a few rich families like the Harlestons lived comfortably, while the majority of people, black slaves, were consigned to a form of living hell. South Carolina covers a relatively small area, thirty-one thousand square miles, about a third less land than Virginia. But in William Harleston's day, Charleston, a large and queenly port city, set a worldly tone. Charleston ranked fourth in size in cities in the United States, after New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Its port shipped out homegrown necessities — mainly rice and cotton tilled by black hands — and received a stream of luxuries in return from the Northern states and from Europe. The tons of silver, imported clothing, and fine furniture that came back all floated up to the top tier of society. The crumbs fell to a poor white working class, and the dregs dribbled to the slaves.

Although the United States had banned the import of slaves in 1808, West Africans who had previously arrived in Charleston in chains filled the state. In 1820, blacks in South Carolina outnumbered whites 265,000 to 237,000. (The state was one of only two with a black majority, the other being Louisiana.) William's family was among the lucky few. With their houses in Charleston and plantations outside town, the Harlestons were within the wealthiest one percent of all Americans.

Census records show that during America's slaveholding years, there were more white bachelors living in the South than in the rest of the country. This anomaly was probably not the result of a surplus...

The Sweet Hell Inside. Copyright © by Edward Ball. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2003

    Excellent so far...

    I'm halfway finished with this book and so far it has been a non-stop journey of history that I never knew. The depth of the family history is impressive. There is so much to learn through this one family. It's amazing. You really get a glimpse of society during the time periods of this book just by the telling of the Harlestons' story. I can't wait to finish it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2002

    The best I've read in a long, long time.

    This book gave me the opportunity to see American history as it was hidden from me. I'm 42 years old, and I feel as if my eyes have been opened for the first time. I recommend this book to anyone but especially to Whites who grew up in the South. As I read the story behind this family, I got glimpses of their struggles, their hopes and their despair. The tears I cried were sincere, and I don't think I'll ever be the same again. I'm glad Edward Ball wrote this book. It was definitely a story that needed to be told.

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