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From Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Sawmill

Georgianna Gadsden Richardson lived on a dirt road about five miles from what used to be Comingtee plantation. Her house, a little blue cottage, stood in a clearing framed by the woods. On one side of the house was a trailer, on the other another cottage in a state of collapse. The older cottage tilted to the left, was missing a wall, and had a rusting refrigerator inside. I later learned that this had been Mrs. Richardson's first house, destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. It was a cool day, and a teenager was playing basketball in the middle of the clearing -- Mrs. Richardson's youngest relative on the scene, Marcill. The blue cottage, built to replace the old, had four rooms and a linoleum floor. Mrs. Richardson sat in an armchair in a tiny front room, a walker at her side, looking every month of her eighty-something years. She wore a checkered cotton dress and square glasses over clouded eyes, while the right side of her face appeared sunken in -- from an operation, she said -- and her mouth showed only a few teeth. The hair on her head had turned white and was falling out, though a hat covered the remainder. Her fingers were crooked and her palm a little rough.

"Mr. Ball!" Mrs. Richardson almost shouted. "You must be the greaty of the greaty!" She laughed a sandpaper laugh. She meant that I would have to be one of the youngest in the Ball family. "The grand-chirren of the grand-chirren!" she said.

It had been some time since Mrs. Richardson had spoken to a person named Ball, but she knew the legacy.

"All my people from Com'ntee," she began. She pronounced the name "Common-T," the local black sounding of the word. "My grand-mother, great-grandmother, aunt, uncle, all of them from Com'ntee. They leave Com'ntee when that man bought it and drove 'em away from there. That's why they come to Sawmill." Mrs. Richardson was loud and friendly, and spoke a strong Gullah.
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Comingtee, the first Ball plantation, beginning in 1689, was also, two centuries later, one of the last. After the Civil War it carried on as a sharecrop farm. Many of the former slaves stayed for fifty years, living in the same cabins they had long occupied, working the same fields. In time, the rice crop dwindled to a third, then a tenth, of its old measure. Sometimes the Balls leased the plantation to entrepreneurs who wanted to try the rice business; later they ran it themselves, until it failed. By the mid-1890s, the main dwelling had fallen into disrepair and the black families coaxed subsistence from small plots. The heirs to the property could no longer afford it. In 1901, Alwyn Ball Jr., a cousin raised in New York who had made money without the benefit of slavery, bought the land and restored the main house. In 1918 the family of Alwyn Ball formed the Comingtee Corporation, with hopes of selling lumber from the woods. There was a sawmill a few miles away that hired black men, and trees from Comingtee began to feed it, but the forestry business didn't last. In March 1927, after 229 years as Ball family property, Comingtee was sold to a U.S. senator from New Jersey, Joseph Frelinghuysen. The politician used the main house as a vacation home, the woods for hunting. In 1949 the land was sold to the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, which wanted the pine forests for cardboard paper, and the duck blinds and deer stands as outdoor leisure to entertain clients. The big house was abandoned, the old slave cabins pulled down. By the time I found Sawmill, the same dirt roads crossed Comingtee, but only two buildings from the slave days remained, both in ruins.

"The greaty of the greaty!" Mrs. Richardson laughed again. "The children born on the plantation, the black children, they used to call them 'the Ball children,' because the Balls had that place. When somebody had a baby on the plantation, they would say, 'Who had the Ball?' My daddy's a Cordes, from Mepkin plantation, and my ma's people is Ball, from Com'ntee, so I got all kind of blood."

I asked Mrs. Richardson how many black people lived at Comingtee when she was a child.

"A good bit."

"Fifty?"

"More than that," she answered. "All of my people lived there. They used to work in the Com'ntee big house. Titty Mack, my aunt, she was there. And somebody else used to be cook. I wash dishes, and they do the cooking."

Mrs. Richardson's memories came from the 1920s, when the old slave street was still standing.

"It ain't no street, it was dirt and sand," Mrs. Richardson corrected me. "It was behind the big house. You leave the big house from the back, and go a little ways. Lemme see, Sam was at the head. You pass his house, and get to Elijah house. Then Dye house. There was Elijah, Dye, and Bristol." Mrs. Richardson looked at the floor. "I can't remember all of them, but plenty of them people stayed. I think there was five house on the street. The house was made of board. They ain't have no porch, just a tree you sit under when you get hot. There was two families in the house, in two rooms, and a brick chimney in the middle. In the front of the house, there was a field where everybody get their own piece to plant."

ln the 1800s, someone had taken a photograph of some of the Comingtee cabins. It showed a row of skinny wooden houses, each built for two families, just as Mrs. Richardson described, five to ten people a room. There were more in the woods.

I brought out a list of names from the first census made after the War, in 1870, in hopes that Mrs. Richardson would recognize some of them, people who would have been old when she was a child, but her face fell.

"I can't read," she said, brushing the page.

Mrs. Richardson's eyes looked away, and she was silent. She closed her mouth and her smile went flat. I had embarrassed her.

"Mrs. Richardson," I said, "what my family did to your family, long ago, was a crime. One reason I came is to try to answer for that crime."

"Thank you for coming," she replied. She made a fist. "Some people keep their hand boxed up. I don't box 'em up." Opening her fist, she said, "See, I keep an open hand." Regaining her pride, she continued, "They tell me, 'Miss Georgie, don't mind you can't read, because you got good experience, you got memory."'

Mrs. Richardson's mood lightened. "I was christened in Com'ntee church. Plenty people still went to that church when I was a girl. We used to walk from Sawmill to go to Com'ntee, bare feet and carry our shoes, going to church. They had a high choir, up overhead." She pointed at the walls of her living room, to a choir loft in her mind. "Before you got to the church, you would start to hear 'em singing through the woods. And their feet ... dum-ta-da-dum, ta-da-dum, ta-da-dum. We get there, take the brush, wipe off your feet, put on your shoes and go inside."

We talked for a while about church, and I told Mrs. Richardson that the previous Sunday I had not gone.

"The Devil put a hat on your head and shoes on your feet and a glass in your eye!" she said, scolding. "Devil's a strong man!"

I asked about the settling of Sawmill, the village that appeared in the shadow of Comingtee.

"Everybody built they own house," she said. "When they left Com'ntee, they got slab wood from the sawmill, and build they house in the moonlight. Some built a pole house, some board. My daddy had a house of board, but it ain't had but one room." A board house was an airtight cabin made from planks. A pole house was a log cabin whose gaps were filled with clay and straw.

"They cut the pole, build the house, and put the straw in there and put the clay between 'em," Mrs. Richardson went on. "They build the chimney with clay. You cut off the end of the pine sapling, cut down the sapling, and peel 'em down. You stack 'em there and put the clay between there. But oh Lord, if it rains, you have to keep a fire all night so it don't fall."

"Why didn't they use brick?" I asked.

"They ain't had none!" None of the houses with clay chimneys survived, but there were photographs. The clay looked soft, with the ends of sticks poking out.

"If it rained, then the chimney ran down the chute with the water," I said.

"That's right! My daddy kept the fire all night when it rained, so it wouldn't fall," she finished. "Mostly this time of the year, you could smell the wood burning. That green oak smells so good. Oak's the one that holds the heat. The pine makes the ashes, but that oak burns all night. Throw it on that fire, you got a heater."

Mrs. Richardson laughed. Her voice was rising, and she was getting excited. She paused, let her tongue out a bit from her mouth, laying it on her lips, then pointed a finger at the window.

"The windows, you made 'em out of board, and put 'em in, on hinge. Glass windows was for people who rich! For make a bed, you take a crocus sack, a big sack you get feed in." (A crocus sack was a big burlap bag that held animal feed, or potatoes.) "You finish the feed, and you get the sack. To make a mattress, you had four sack on the bottom, four on the top. You get a big needle and thread 'em together make the mattress. Then you go in the woods and you rake pine straw, put it in the mattress, and stuff 'em down, pack it down, then sew 'em up. For a pillow, you take some old clothes you don't want, wash 'em clean, put 'em in a sack. You sleep good." Mrs. Richardson smiled and laughed a raspy laugh. She was rocking back and forth. Suddenly she stopped, and her face tightened. "Oh, what them old-time people been through!" she shouted. "Hard times! Hard slavery! But it's going to be all right. When Gabriel blow the trumpet, then the dead in Christ got to rise!"


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    Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., New York, New York, USA. From Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. Copyright © 1998 by Edward Ball. All rights reserved.
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