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Inheriting Slavery
In Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball rewrites his family legends in an effort to bring black and white history together

February 26, 1998

Slaves in the Family The journalist Edward Ball grew up steeped in the lore of the antebellum South. His family's dynasty began in 1698, when Elias Ball sailed from England to Charleston, South Carolina, to claim his inheritance -- part of a plantation and twenty slaves. His descendants became members of one of the wealthiest and most prominent families in the South -- before the Civil War they owned more than twenty rice plantations and thousands of slaves. The rose-tinted stories about life on the plantations that Edward Ball heard as a child rarely mentioned the slaves who outnumbered their owners' families by seven to one. Ball set out to discover what life had really been like for his family's slaves, in the process tracking down and befriending their descendants and sifting through 10,000 pages of Ball-family archives. As a columnist for The Village Voice, Ball had written about race issues prior to this book, but it wasn't until he returned to Charleston for a family reunion that he decided to "make an effort, however inadequate and personal, to face the plantations, to reckon with them rather than ignore their realities or make excuses for them." Slaves in the Family is Ball's first book.

Ball recently spoke with Atlantic Unbound's Katie Bacon.

Discuss this interview in the Community & Society forum of Post & Riposte.

Read an excerpt from the first chapter of Slaves in the Family.

From the archives:

"The President's Proclamation," by Ralph Waldo Emerson (November, 1862)
"And the aim of the war on our part is indicated by the aim of the President's Proclamation, namely, to break up the false combination of Southern society, to destroy the piratic feature in it which makes it our enemy only as it is the enemy of the human race, and so allow its reconstruction on a just and healthful basis. Then new affinities will act, the old repulsions will cease, and, the cause of war being removed, Nature and trade may be trusted to establish a lasting peace."

"The Heart of the Race Problem," by Quincy Ewing (March, 1909)
"The foundation of [the race problem], true or false, is the white man's conviction that the Negro as a race, and as an individual, is his inferior.... The problem itself ... is the white man's determination to make good this conviction, coupled with constant anxiety lest, by some means, he should fail to make it good."

Flashback: "Black History, American History," (February, 1997)
A look back at seminal essays by Atlantic contributors W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Many people in your extended family, especially those in the older generation, were against your writing this book. Why were they against it? What made you decide to go ahead with it?

Edward Ball
Edward Ball

All of us in the Ball family were raised on a common series of legends about the slave days. Plantation stories formed a core part of our personalities. In fact, they were the glue of the family. So when I came along and attempted to rework or rewrite these legends it was threatening to many of the older members of the family, particularly those raised before the civil-rights period. People were fearful not only that their sense of who they are as members of the Ball family would be damaged but also that the Balls themselves would be criticized and publicly vilified.

I decided that although I might hurt some people personally, which I did not want to do, the family story was bigger and more important than we were as individuals and as a family. There was more at stake than the private legends of a handful of relatives. Contained in the Ball plantation stories are the lives and life histories of thousands and thousands of people. Tens of thousands of living African-Americans are connected to my own family story, and their well-being is, in my view, more important than ours.

What are you trying to accomplish by bringing these stories to light?

I'm trying to bring together black and white history into a shared history. We know a lot about the white South, perhaps too much. In the past thirty years we've learned a lot about black Americans and their journey, but we still seem to think of American history as a segregated legacy. We either enter the Native American story or the black story or the Irish story or the WASP story, and we don't depict American life as it really was lived, which was side by side, ethnicities elbowing and competing with one another.

In the ethical domain, I'm trying as an individual to apply medicine to what I believe is the unhealed wound of our national life -- the enormous and disastrous 250-year crime of African slavery. But if I only am able to make a difference in the lives of the few dozen black people whom I've met and worked with for the past few years, I think I'll be satisfied.

The idea of a white person, especially one whose ancestors owned slaves, telling stories of slavery is anathema to some. How did the black families you approached react to your request to learn and write about their stories?

redcap picture
Elias "Red Cap" Ball

I've really been exposed to a wide range of people's emotions in working on this project -- from anger and resentment to indifference, curiosity, and tearful joy. Each one of these emotions, you might say, expresses a political point of view with regard to the legacy of slavery and race relations in America. To generalize about the families that I've worked with: people were stunned when I showed up in their lives. They were curious once the shock passed, and in the end we befriended one another. I'm only speaking of ten families, or fifty people. When I started this I had to decide whether I was going to meet hundreds of descendants of Ball slaves, which I could have done, but that would have been a superficial numbers game. I decided to try to develop friendships, kinships with a handful of people.

You recount how your father would joke, "There are five things we don't talk about in the Ball family. Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes." Have the descendants of the Balls and the families the Balls enslaved tried to bury what happened by not discussing it?
From the archives:

"Reconstruction," by Frederick Douglass (December, 1866)

"Slavery, like all other great systems of wrong, founded in the depths of human selfishness, and existing for ages, has not neglected its own conservation. It has steadily exerted an influence upon all around it favorable to its own continuance. And today it is so strong that it could exist, not only without law, but even against law."

Yes. Consciously and also unconsciously. In the first years after freedom, people on both the black and the white sides of the fence made a conscious effort to rewrite and forget what they had been through. If you read the memoirs of slave-owning families you'd be hard pressed to find evidence of black people in the lives of the whites, even though for most of the time on the plantations black people outnumbered whites by a ratio of seven to one. Blacks moved out of slave cabins and off the plantation as soon as they could after they were freed. If they were ambitious and young, they would leave the state of South Carolina and go to New York. By the mid twentieth century black folks had managed to forget as much as they could about slavery. It was a badge of shame even to talk about it. On the white side, in the 1950s it was a badge of honor and dignity to be descendants of slave owners, because that meant your family was an old family, that at one time it had had power and wealth. Slave-owning families were not the only ones to exalt their ancestors, but that tendency got a certain extra momentum in the South because these families believed themselves to be victims disenfranchised by an unjust war. This was their sense of self, so they were even more inclined to romanticize and to move away from their wrongdoing.

What sort of stories were passed down to you?

Most of us in childhood heard snippets of stories about individual slaves, usually house servants who were close to the family. But in terms of the great mass of people, the field hands, we didn't know much, our parents didn't know much, our grandparents didn't know much. We did talk constantly about our ancestors, though. The Balls were an early colonial family who fought in the Revolution and in the Civil War, and the stories of these events were told and retold. All of us knew members of the family by name, we knew their love lives, their personal habits, their illnesses, we knew if they were spendthrifts or if they were frugal. These are people who had been dead for two hundred years. We knew about the members of the family in great detail, but a curtain was pulled across the experience of the slaves. So when I came along and started to dig, it was like rediscovering a world.

And what about the black families?

Some of them had lore about a single ancestor who had been freed from a particular Ball plantation and then had parented the whole branch from which they came -- that person typically was the start of their family lore. Very few knew anything about their family history before the year of freedom, 1865.

You point out that black revolts became less and less common the longer blacks were in America. Why do you think this was so?

slavehse picture
The "slave street" at
Comingtee Plantation

This is one of the sad aspects of the story. The people who were the most defiant were the Africans, the first generation of people enslaved in the 1700s. Before the American Revolution there were frequent slave uprisings, and a lot of people would run away. There's evidence that the Balls would punish runaways by cutting off their toes, or by beating them with whips. During the Revolution hundreds of slaves ran away with the British and left South Carolina for places like Jamaica and Nova Scotia, but after the Revolution things calmed down, in part because there was a ban on importing Africans, and nearly every person in the rice fields had been born in America. So most people in slavery after the Revolution had no memory of a childhood in a different culture. They were born and raised in servitude; as children they learned a kind of subservience that carried through life. This is not to say that there wasn't resistance -- during the 1800s there was a lot. But it usually took the form of the intentional misunderstanding of instructions, or running away for a weekend and coming back, or work slowdowns, or other acts of subversion. The last attempt at revolt in which some of the Ball slaves participated was in 1822. It was called the Denmark Vesey conspiracy, which led to the execution of thirty-five people, including one of the Ball slaves, Peter Poyas. After that there was a harsh clamp-down by the legislature, and the policing system got much more severe. That made people step back from open defiance.
From the archives:

"Denmark Vesey," by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (June, 1861)

"Men in authority came and sought by promises, threats, and even tortures, to ascertain the names of other accomplices. His companion, wearied out with pain and suffering, and stimulated by the hope of saving his own life, at last began to yield. Peter [Poyas] raised himself, leaned upon his elbow, looked at the poor fellow, saying quietly, 'Die like a man,' and instantly lay down again. It was enough; not another word was extorted."

Another reason, which might be more important than the others, was that the slaves were Christianized in the 1810s and 1820s by white evangelists who taught a form of Christianity that was amenable to the plantation system. After a few years there were black preachers who had been trained by white preachers on the plantations, and they preached redemption in the afterlife -- pie in the sky when you die, and obedience in the here and now. This had the effect of quieting a lot of the resistance.

What was your family lore about life on the plantations for the slaves? How different was the information you were able to piece together through archival material and black oral histories?

One thing that was often repeated was the fact that there were no uprisings after a certain point, and that therefore the Ball slaves must have been content. Generally the lore went like this: slavery was wrong, but the black people were cared for when they could no longer work; they were given a home and fed and clothed until death. They had only to carry out a certain number of tasks, and in return they had cradle-to-grave care. Alongside that were stories of almost filial love between the house slaves and the Balls. Stories of very devoted mammies and dignified and devoted butlers.

The information I was able to piece together was very different. One of the core aspects of the Ball family tradition was that the Balls never separated the slave families by sale. There was an unwritten gentleman's code among rice-plantation owners that children not be sold from their mothers, that husbands not be sold from their wives, and that parents in their old age not be sold from their families. This was repeated over and over in Ball-family lore. That in itself was a clue that there was something going on there, so I looked with extra care for paper evidence of how the Balls bought and sold people. The Balls gave their account books and plantation papers to libraries thirty to forty years after freedom. Putting myself in their shoes, in that time, I might have gone through my family papers and removed the most damning evidence of abuse. Now, I have no proof that this occurred, but I suspect that there was an editing process. Nevertheless, some stuff made it into the libraries that raised the hair on the back of my neck: receipts for children bought at age six, at age ten; receipts for young men sold away from their families because at twenty-five years old they were the most valuable piece of property on the plantation. Receipts that showed that a seventy-five year old man watched his wife, children, and grandchildren sold away from the plantation. Just gruesome stuff. This didn't happen all the time, but it did happen, because there was money to be made. It happened because Mr. Ball disliked so-and-so who worked for him, and all he had to do was tell the slave trader to take so-and-so away.

Another taboo in Ball-family lore was discussion of sexual abuse. The Ball tradition is, or was, that the Ball slave owners did not have sex with their slaves. That was something that other slave owners did. If you ask any descendant of slave owners they will tell you the same thing, "My family didn't separate families, and our men did not sleep with the slave women." I knew that I would find some evidence to the contrary, but I didn't think I would find much. In fact I found a considerable amount of evidence that in each generation going back two hundred years at least one of the Ball men had a mulatto family. The evidence came from black families who told me about the existence of their light-skinned uncles and aunts whose fathers were named Ball and also from paper evidence on the plantations where you would find, for example, Ball men leaving money to black women and giving them freedom.

You traveled to Sierra Leone to see Bunce Island, where many of the people who became Ball slaves were held, and to meet some of the descendants of African slave dealers. How did these descendants react to your questioning of the morality of what their ancestors did?

I found three families whose ancestors, in all likelihood, had sold people who then ended up on Ball-family plantations. I followed a paper trail that went from the Ball lands to a slave dealer in Charleston, a man called Henry Laurens, who was an in-law of the Balls, to Sierra Leone and to the slave prison at Bunce Island, a ruined fortress on a rock. From there oral tradition in Sierra Leone connected Bunce Island to these three families whose ancestors had sold people to the English.

These families were pretty surprised to see me. I got their attention. The most interesting of them was headed by Alikali Modu, an eighty-year-old chief whose ancestors, also chiefs, ran a slave business in a place called Port Loko. He deflected all of my questions to his ceremonial spokesmen, who were initially defensive, saying everyone was doing it, it was the business of the day, and so on. And then something in the conversation turned dramatically, and their emotions and their shoulders sagged. They began to say things like, "This was an evil business; it caused immeasurable harm; I wish we could atone for it in some way." At the conclusion of an afternoon of talk I went with the chief's entourage to a loading dock in the town of Port Loko, where the slaves had been tied up and sent in boats down the coast, and we performed an act of commemoration and atonement. It was an important moment for them, I think, and an important one for me.

How is your family reacting to the book now that it's out?

I won't be able to please all of them, but from the feedback I've gotten most are relieved. They see the seriousness with which I've handled the family story. They see that it's a piece of history, not a piece of opinion or commentary. Some members of the family are throwing a big party for me next week in Charleston to thank me for writing the book. And those who don't want to come will stay home. Since this is a family in which many people take their sense of self from what our forebears did, by tampering with the family story I've actually hurt some people's sense of self. That makes me sad. I have nothing but affection for the people in the family who have been against this project.

In an emotional conversation with Emily Frayer, a woman in her mid-nineties whom you took to see the cabin on an old Ball plantation where she was born, you told her, "I'm sorry for what my family did to your family." You had doubts about this apology, which was broadcast as part of a radio documentary in 1994, later saying it was something you wouldn't repeat. But you recently apologized on the Oprah Winfrey Show to Katie Roper and her daughter Charlotte Dunn, also descendants of Ball slaves. What changed your mind?

I said I didn't think I would repeat it because I didn't want it to sound superficial. There are, after all, between seventy-five thousand and a hundred thousand descendants of the Ball-family slaves. If I were to begin apologizing to every one of these families it would quickly become a meaningless act. I thought it was important to have an apology with meaning, so that's why I apologized to Mrs. Frayer. We had a shared family lore, we had gone back to her birthplace on a Ball plantation, and it just seemed right. A year later I had developed a relationship with another family named the Ropers. We had shared a lot, cried together, laughed together, talked about the worst things imaginable, and I thought that it would be right and helpful if I apologized to them. I happened to do it on national television and in that way this symbolic act was heard by maybe eight million people, which might magnify its importance. I'm not against apologizing again, as long as it has meaning.
Related features:

Roundtable: Race in America

If the problem of the twentieth century has been "the problem of the color line," will the same hold true for the next century? Nicholas Lemann, Glenn C. Loury, Christopher Edley Jr., and Dinesh D'Souza discuss the issue.

See a collection of articles on the subject of race and affirmative action.
What do you think of last year's debate in Congress over whether the government should apologize for slavery? Would this sort of government-wide apology be helpful? Or do we need something more concrete, like reparations?

I don't think the government should apologize at this moment to African-Americans because it would be inauthentic and a piece of political theater. I think that as a country we have to have a more genuine and honest confrontation with the past before an apology will make sense. The government should apologize when there's a consensus in the nation, especially among white people, that this is an important thing to do. Whether we will get to that point I can't say. We have to have more self-examination before an apology will work.

I don't think that reparations are a good idea because they would cause a ground swell of resentment among the majority population. I'm talking about whites but also about Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian-Americans. I think it would be divisive. The Holocaust in Poland and Germany is a different case. The German government pays money and has paid money to the government of Israel and to thousands of individual survivors, but the difference is that the perpetrators in many cases are still alive and that the victims in some cases are still alive. It would be more difficult to demonstrate the value of paying reparations to fourth-generation descendants of people in slavery.

Whether the slave-owning families should pay out money is another issue. One of the goals of the Civil War was to take wealth away from the slave owners, to take away their dirty money. In the case of the Balls it succeeded very well. The Balls at the end of the Civil War owned nine plantations; by the 1890s they owned three, and by the beginning of the 1900s the sharecropping system that had replaced slavery collapsed and the Balls had to get other jobs. They became insurance salesmen, fertilizer salesmen, one opened a hardware store, another became a school principal. They didn't suffer anywhere near as much as the children of former slaves, but they were no longer rich. And here we are, ninety years later, and there's no hidden cache of money left over from the slave days. So it would be a hard case to argue that the descendants of slave owners should come forward with reparations. Within the families, however, we should at least ask the question, What do we owe society for what our ancestors did? The Balls do not have financial capital from the slave days, but we do have a great deal of cultural capital that was built directly on the foundation of slavery. We have chances at education and professional opportunities that others do not. We have freedom to travel based upon privileges that were set up long ago. We should ask ourselves how we can share this cultural capital.

You also said to Mrs. Frayer, "We're not responsible for what our ancestors did or did not do, but we're accountable for it." What does being accountable actually mean?

I cannot change the behavior of my forebears, and for that reason I don't believe that I'm responsible for what they did in the way that a criminal is culpable for a crime. But I do think that I'm accountable for it, that families like mine are accountable for it, and that means we should try to speak about it, to explain it to people. I think there is a need for families like my own to come forward and confront the past, be honest about it, and do what they can to make right where their ancestors have done so much wrong.

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    Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

    Photo credits: Author photograph by Sigrid Estrada. Elias Ball, by Jeremiah Theus from a private collection. Slave street at Comingtee plantation, nineteenth-century photograph from a private collection.