Slaves in the Family

Paperback: 496 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (April 22, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0374534454
ISBN-13: 978-0374534455

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Slaves in the Family

Slaves in the Family is the story of one man’s exploration of his family’s slave-owning past and his search for the descendants of the people his ancestors kept as slaves.

In 1698, Elias Ball traveled from his home in Devon, England to Charleston, South Carolina to take possession of his inheritance: part of a plantation and twenty slaves. Elias and his progeny built an American dynasty that lasted for six generations, acquiring more than twenty plantations along the Cooper River near Charleston, selling rice known as Carolina Gold, and enslaving close to four thousand Africans and African Americans until 1865, when Union troops arrived on the lawns of the Balls’ estates to force emancipation.

Edward Ball, a descendant of Elias, has written a nonfiction American saga that is part history, part journey of discovery. This is the story of black and white families who have lived side by side through three hundred years, a tale of everyday people who face their vexed inheritance together.  Ball chronicles the people who lived on his ancestors’ lands: the violence and the opulence, the slave uprisings and escapes, the white and black heroes of the American Revolution, the mulatto children of Ball masters and “Ball slaves,” and the culminating shock of the Civil War.  He reconstructs the genealogies of slave families—from the first African captives, through ten generations, to the present.

Most remarkable, Edward Ball travels all over the United States to meet descendants of Ball slaves, who number upwards of 100,000 living Americans. In a series of memorable encounters, Ball hears from black families—some of whom are his blood kin—their stories, passions, and dreams, and reveals how the effects of slavery live on in black and white life and memory.

Slaves in the Family is a microcosm of America’s defining national experience, a story of people confronting their inescapable common humanity.


Slaves in the Family

Chapter 1

“Plantation Memories”

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

“There are certain 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 once asked.

“That’s one 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 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 us each 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 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?” he might say.  “His plantation was on Wambaw Creek.  He had about 150 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 a colonel.  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…

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…

* * *


Slaves in the Family

“Remarkable…an extraordinary achievement [with] much to learn from.”
—Drew Gilpin Faust, New York Times Book Review

“Laudable…admirable…deft…immensely valuable…fascinating and important.”
—Annette Gordon-Reed, Washington Times

“Beautifully written and elegantly composed… a splendid detective-story narrative.”
—The Independent

“A landmark book [with] spellbinding stories… Everyone should read and learn from this luminous book.”
—San Francisco Chronicle

“Sensitive and formidable… the historical sections rivet a reader.”

“A triptych—family history, American history, and investigative journalism…. The lyricism of the reflective prose acts like a silver through-line.”
—Los Angeles Times