The Sweet Hell Inside,
The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South

Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Morrow Paperbacks
(November 5, 2002)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0060505907
ISBN-13: 978-0060505905

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The Sweet Hell Inside

The Sweet Hell Inside is the four-generation saga of the fascinating Harleston family of South Carolina, the progeny of a Southern gentleman and his slave, who rise from the ashes of the Civil War, cast off their blemished roots, and create a cultural dynasty during the 1920s Jazz Age.

Charter members of the Southern “colored elite,” the Harlestons achieved early wealth that afforded them the comfort of chauffeurs and servants whose skin was darker than theirs. It also launched the family into a generation of glory as painters, performers, and photographers.

The Sweet Hell Inside features a celebrated portrait artist whose subjects included industrialist Pierre du Pont; a black classical composer in the Lost Generation of 1920s Paris; and the founder of orphanage who creates the famous Jenkins Orphanage Band, a definitive force in the development of ragtime and jazz.

The Harlestons’s 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. With evocative and engrossing storytelling, Edward Ball introduces a cast of historical characters rarely seen before: cultured, vain, imperfect, rich, and black—a family of eccentrics who defied social convention and flourished. The Sweet Hell Inside raises the curtain on a unique family drama that takes its place in the pageant of American life.


The Sweet Hell Inside


Edwina Harleston Whitlock rose from the table where we were sitting in her living room in Atlanta, and said, “I want to show you something.”  The elderly woman led me to the rear of her house, where I had never gone, pushed open the door to a small office, and there, in heaps, was the most chaotic mess of papers I had ever seen.  Every chair and tabletop was layered with documents.  Filing cabinets were jammed so full their contents spilled to the floor.  Sepia-colored photographs lay among piles of stained folders.  From window to window, old papers stood in tilting stacks.

“I’ve been collecting information about my family,” was her explanation.

For days, I had been listening to stories about Edwina’s relatives, each more intriguing than the last, and now she was showing me her sources.  I like old things, and the sight of the office and its ancient files was like a ship to the eyes of a castaway.  At that moment, I could picture myself spending a year sifting through the hoard.

The first time I spoke with the collector of that jumble of papers was on a Saturday afternoon several years ago.  I picked up the phone, and on the other end was an unusually pleasing voice, which sounded like it belonged to a woman who was in her later years.  She told me her name, Edwina Harleston Whitlock, and abruptly announced that we were cousins.  I was living in Charleston, South Carolina, and the possibility that I might be related to someone I had never met didn’t surprise me.  In the South, to discover a cousin you’ve never met is nothing unusual, because Southerners claim to be related to almost everybody, practically to the trees.  The one distinct exception is that white people never admit they might be related to blacks.

At the time, I was in the midst of writing my first book, Slaves in the Family.  The book told the story of my family’s long history of slave ownership in the American South, and the story of my search for and meetings with descendants of my ancestors’ slaves.  Edwina Harleston Whitlock, the caller, said she had heard about my research into the lives of my family’s former slaves, and she wanted me to know that she was one of the nonwhite descendants of the Ball family.  She said she was the great-granddaughter of a slave-owner and (in her word) his slave “consort.”  Put another way, we were cousins, and she was a person of color.

In the book I was writing, I didn’t intend to skirt the subject of sex between slave owners and slaves, and I thought I might receive a phone call like this one.  But the idea of having a cousin of color was still jarring.  There were no black Americans I thought of in the same way I think of my immediate family, who are white.  As a boy, growing up in the South in the late nineteen-sixties and nineteen-seventies, I knew of the Harleston family, some of whom had married cousins of my father.  I knew that various Harleston relatives were buried next to the graves of my father’s people in a small cemetery near Charleston.  But I didn’t know that some of our Harleston relatives had been black.  As I put down the phone, I sensed my life had suddenly and irreversibly changed.

Although it occurred to me that the caller might be mistaken, I eventually found the wills, probate records, diaries, and oral tradition that documented our kinship.  We were, in fact, very distant relatives: Edwina Harleston Whitlock’s great-great-great-great grandfather had been the brother of my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother.  The connection was labyrinthine, but no less real.  Two of my forebears, Elizabeth Harleston (ca. 1678-1719) and Elias Ball (1676-1751), were married in South Carolina in 1700; Elizabeth Harleston was the sister of Edwina Whitlock’s forebear, John Harleston (ca. 1675-1738).  In 1707, John Harleston married Elizabeth Willis (ca. 1680-1754), and that couple formed the initial white roots of Edwina Whitlock’s family, which later became African American by means of the previously mentioned “consort.”  By the rules of kinship, Edwina and I were sixth cousins, two times removed.

After our introduction, I would sometimes make the drive from Charleston to Atlanta, where Edwina lived, to spend a day or two with her.  She was eighty-something, stood five-feet-seven, had a beautiful smile, and she was successfully fighting her age.  She painted her fingernails, wore silk, and walked as erect as a student in a posture class.  Her skin was not much darker than mine, its texture smooth from decades of creams and care, and her eyes were penetrating when she uttered a devious remark, which was often.

We began by tracing the small but actual blood we had in common, and starting to come to terms with our connection.  But it soon became apparent that our kinship would take second place to another preoccupation in our relationship, and that was storytelling.  My newfound cousin was good with a tale, especially when it concerned her family’s past, and her stories made me interested in her life.  She was ironic, made fun of things, and we enjoyed one another, despite the anxiety we both felt about being related by an act of (probably not consensual) interracial sex.

Edwina Harleston Whitlock is the descendant of a white slave-owner and his young black concubine, whose names were William Harleston and Kate Wilson, who had lived in the 1840s on an estate in South Carolina.  William Harleston never married a white woman, and he had eight children with Kate Wilson, including Edwina’s grandfather, Edwin G. Harleston.

In the early 1900s, Edwina’s family, the Harlestons, played a little-known but fascinating role in the American national saga.  For years, Edwina had wanted to put down some of their experiences, and she had gotten as far as compiling the documentation.  Although she could describe ancient scenes in vivid detail, and could remember fragments of conversations from her childhood in the 1920s, finding a written voice had eluded her.

When the white William Harleston died, his children, who had previously lived in some comfort, were pushed into black society and into destitution by their white relatives.  But Edwina’s grandfather saved the family from poverty by establishing a funeral business, and the Harlestons eventually landed in prosperous and secure lives.

At this point, with the generation of Edwina’s grandfather, Edwin, the story of the Harlestons becomes truly special.  Edwin Harleston’s own five children, born between 1878 and 1889, were American cultural pioneers.  One became an artist who opened a studio with his wife, a photographer, and painted portraits of the likes of industrialist Pierre DuPont; that couple, in the early 1900s, were two of only a handful of nonwhites in the country who could say that art was their career.  Another of Edwin’s children helped to run an unusual orphanage, some whose young black inmates became prodigies in a group of child musicians, called the Jenkins Orphanage Band, whose pubescent entertainers share credit with the bands from New Orleans for the birth and spread of jazz music.  Other personalities in the family included a gay undertaker and hypochondriac who believed he was always on the verge of death; a classically trained black composer who haunted the nightclubs of 1920s Paris; and a Harleston family mistress who doubled as an abortionist.  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, with scenes that were acted out in Chicago, New York, Boston, and beyond, in London and Paris.

Edwina’s family thrived even during some of America’s cruelest years.  From the 1890s until about 1960, black and “mixed-race” Americans lived nearly as aliens in the wider society—deprived of a choice of work, denied the ability to educate their children, as well as the freedom to select a home, and subjected to random violence—all while governments looked away, and white citizens remained indifferent.  But the Harlestons shrugged off all these troubles as though they were so much bad weather, and went about their business building a cultural dynasty.

The Harlestons had an unusually good time of it in part because of who they were.  Edwina Harleston Whitlock’s family belonged to a tiny group of light-skinned blacks at the top of the nonwhite world, an educated, powerful “colored elite,” most of whom were the children of white men and their black lovers.  The Harlestons were members of this in-between class—a group set apart both from white society, which shunned them, and from poorer black families, who often envied them.

But despite their riches in life, the Harlestons carried a deep pain inside.  They were neither white nor black, and they wondered who they might be for themselves, as well as in the eyes of others.  Parents passed on this anxiety to their children, and it shadowed the family for generations.

While I was visiting Edwina and listening to her recollections, it became apparent to me that my newfound cousin filled up with pleasure and desire whenever she spoke of her family.  Her emotion was pure, and I found the Harleston family’s story to be so rare and so moving that I longed to tell it in its entirety.  Eventually, with Edwina’s consent, I agreed to try to write it.

We began by arranging a meeting schedule.  I would visit, and the two of us would talk only about family history.  Next, I put in order Edwina’s disorganized papers.  They amounted to some two thousand pages of correspondence, scrapbooks, diaries, photographs, and notebooks, many of them handed down in her family from the early 1900s.  I studied the papers for clues and followed the leads of Edwina’s memories and experience.  After I was engorged, I sketched an outline, and went home to my desk to write.

The Sweet Hell Inside is the biography of one family, from their origins as the offspring of an interracial sexual “arrangement,” straight down to the present.  The story of the Harlestons is a tale of black and white sex in America, and its latter-day harvest.  Although members of Edwina’s family are my distant cousins, at this late hour the connection is too remote to let me claim their experiences as my own.  And so their extraordinary journey, and its satisfying culmination, belongs only to them.

* * *


The Sweet Hell Inside

“A fascinating tale…masterful in the telling.”
Washington Post

“Reveals a rich and neglected world… fascinating. Ball makes a significant contribution to a growing body of literature that seeks to rewrite American history with the honesty that should have been at its core all along.”
New York Times Book Review

“Ball is a graceful storyteller, deftly weaving individual experience into social and historical trends.”
O magazine

“Excellent (and highly readable)…an absorbing story”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Thoroughly engrossing…. Ball’s earlier book, Slaves in the Family, earned him a National Book Award. This one is even better.”
Seattle Times