Making Amends

By Jennifer Sutton / July / August 1998
November 30th, 2007

In Charleston, South Carolina, at the corner of East Bay and Broad streets, there is a small, prettily landscaped parking lot near the waterfront. The low brick buildings on the wharves have been gentrified into law firms and other businesses, and on a weekend morning, with few cars or people about, the parking lot is a pleasant, peaceful spot. There is a bench to relax on beneath leafy trees.

Edward Ball, a tall, angular thirty-nine-year-old who spent much of his youth in Charleston, pulls his car alongside the parking lot and cuts the engine. Dressed in cream-colored linen pants and a dark sport jacket, he could be any genteel Southerner out for a weekend drive. But as he looks around the parking lot, his narrow face turns somber, and he begins to tell a story full of violence and cruelty - a story about his family. This parking lot, he believes, is where his ancestors bought and sold human beings.

Close to half of all the people sold into slavery in North America were auctioned off in Charleston, according to Ball, many of them in this very parking lot. Black men, women, and children taken from their African homelands were herded off boats at the nearby wharves, placed on display before crowds of white plantation owners, and sold to the highest bidder. Families were ripped apart. Auctioneers often forced the captives to sprint up East Bay Street and back, since the strongest and fastest would bring the highest price.

Among the prospective buyers were Ed Ball's ancestors. Between 1698, when the first Ball arrived in America, and 1865, when the Civil War ended slavery, the family owned nearly 4,000 slaves on twenty-five rice plantations on the Cooper River, northeast of Charleston. Blacks and whites lived side by side, but in different worlds: the slaves subsisted in shacks and worked the fields six days a week, while the Balls amassed fortunes and rose in the new Southern aristocracy.

The Balls prided themselves on keeping meticulous records. Detailed accounts of property - including humans - and letters describing life on the plantations were passed from generation to generation like heirloom jewelry. From time to time, family members even wrote brief memoirs of their accomplishments; in one such 1786 book, the author urged future Balls to continue the memoir tradition "for the satisfaction of posterity." But such family histories are often less than truthful, says Ball as he pulls his car away from the parking lot and heads out of Charleston. "Many families like mine have legends of prosperity and gentility," he says. "These are soft, fuzzy stories that we tell to protect ourselves."

Ball grew up listening to his father talk about the family's proud Confederate soldiers and vast land holdings, but the slaves were rarely mentioned. Even as a child, Ball knew that a big piece of the story was missing. His father used to joke about the secrecy. "There are five things we don't talk about in this family," the elder Ball would say. "Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes."

When Ed Ball, a freelance journalist, decided a few years ago to research his own book about the family, he broke all these taboos. Slaves in the Family, published in February by Farrar Straus & Giroux, lays bare the role his ancestors played in America's shameful past. Despite strong feelings of family loyalty and pride, he writes, "I felt accountable for what had happened, called on to try to explain it." The book is a blunt, detailed record of violence, miscegenation, and labor. Drawing from 10,000 pages of family papers, Ball retraces the steps of hundreds of his ancestors and the people they owned, even linking specific African Americans living today with their own ancestors: slaves captured in Africa centuries ago.

Slaves in the Family is what Ball calls a "shared history," an attempt to make both slave and owner more human by depicting them as they lived: side by side. At the same time, the book is a quest for redemption. Ball tracks down a handful of of the 75,000 to 100,000 descendants of his family's slaves to offer them his genealogical findings and to interview them about their pasts. He hopes that together they can "share recollections, feelings, and dreams, and make the story whole."

Not surprisingly, Slaves in the Family has drawn strong reactions from critics. Pat Conroy, the South Carolina author of The Prince of Tides and other novels based in the South, calls it "a work of breathtaking generosity and courage" and compares Ball to Alex Haley, the author of Roots. On the other hand, Brent Staples, the New York Times editorial writer, writes in the online magazine Slate that while the book is an important historical document, Ball's interviews with slave descendants have a painful déjà-vu quality: the slaves "enriched Ball lives in the past, [and now] the survivors are being called upon to perform that function again."

Ball, a courtly, soft-spoken man, is pained by such criticism. "Writing this book was not an act of exploitation," he says almost sadly. "I'm trying to tell the truth, to reach out to those who suffered. I wanted to bring the stories of slaves up out of obscurity and bring the stories of white people down so they were on the same level....Acknowledging the fact that my family took part in some of the worst episodes of American life instead of running away [from that fact] - I hope it's the honorable thing to do." It is undoubtedly a brave thing to do. But at a time when every idea connected to race goes under a powerful social microscope, the pursuit of honor is never that simple.

After driving north of Charleston for about twenty minutes, Ball heads down a narrow country road through what was once his ancestors' land. Turning at a wooden gate, he eases the car up a sandy driveway bordered on both sides by live oaks. This is Middleburg, one of the old Ball plantations.

Built in 1697, the main house is a simple, two-story rectangular box with a porch in front and the Cooper River out back. More rustic than the cotton plantations of the 1800s, with their grand Greek Revival mansions, these rice plantations went into business when South Carolina was still a frontier colony, says Ball. Still, his ancestors lived comfortably, for the most part: the women supervised slaves who worked in the house, while the men hunted and occasionally did business in town. Now a vacation home owned by another family, the house and surrounding lands are quiet and beautiful; the Spanish moss draping the live oaks gives the property a languid atmosphere.

Middleburg's pleasing appearance only partially hides a harsh past. Next to the main house are two giant brick fireplaces where slaves cooked for everyone on the plantation. A few hundred yards away, the "commissary" - where the plantation's food was stored - still stands, with bars on the windows to keep hungry slaves out. Between the two areas lies an empty expanse of scrubby grass: this is where the black slaves lived in tiny, thatch-roofed cabins they built themselves, each one housing up to twenty people. Behind the main house, beyond the remains of a formal garden and a small pond, is where most of the slaves spent much of their time, pounding grains of rice from plants they had harvested in nearby fields. "Imagine hundreds of people working here," Ball says, "pounding away in ninety-five-degree heat."

Such gritty details of planation life never surfaced in the stories Ball heard during his childhood. Born in Savannah, Georgia, he moved several times around the South with his parents and older brother; his father was an Episcopalian minister, so the family lived mostly in church rectories. It was a middle-class existence; the family fortunes had been wiped out after the Civil War. But during the summers, when the Balls visited relatives in Charleston, his father's hometown, Ed felt as if he was "reconnecting to something deep. It was always very mysterious and beautiful."

When Ball was nine, the family settled in Charleston. Soon after, his father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The elder Ball underwent surgery, but then suffered a relapse and grew depressed. He committed suicide when Ed was twelve. Before he died, though, he planted a seed in his son's mind that would one day grow into Slaves in the Family. He called Ed and his brother together and presented them with copies of a small book titled Recollections of the Ball Family, written by a distant cousin around the turn of the century. "One day you'll want to know about all this," he told them. Looking back, Ball believes his father was implying that the plantations were a piece of unfinished business. "The story of his family's slave-owning past," Ball writes, had been "a mystery he could only partly decipher."

For many whites, not just Ball's father, denying the past was easier than seeking the truth, especially during the heyday of civil rights activism in the late 1950s and 1960s. Watts burned, the Black Panthers were founded, and Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated: these were the political milestones of Ball's childhood, but his relatives were uncomfortable talking about them. In retrospect, Ball says, "I sensed it was all connected to the legacy of the South, and maybe even to the legacy of my family."

In 1976 Ball fled to Brown, where he studied semiotics. "I thought the South was narrow and provincial," he says. "I wanted to connect myself to the rest of the world." He enrolled briefly in graduate film school, but left to become a freelance journalist in New York City, eventually writing an architecture column for the Village Voice and reviewing books and movies. Occasionally he would leaf through the old Recollections book and wonder about the Ball plantations. "The story, as I knew it, was divided in two," he writes. "On one side stood the ancestors, vivid, serene, proud; on the other their slaves, anonymous, taboo, half-human." It wasn't until 1993, when an invitation to a family reunion reawakened his childhood memories, that Ball decided to find out who those slaves were and to tell their stories.

"There's a considerable legacy of white history [written] in this country," he points out, "and during the last thirty years or so, there's been a flowering of black history. But there is no shared history in which experiences are told side by side, which is how we lived for hundreds of years."

One problem with writing a shared history of slavery, though, is that documentation comes mostly from slaveowners; slaves were illiterate or were too exhausted from working to leave a comparable paper trail. Yet within the Balls' plantation records were clues about the lives of African and African-American slaves: their marriages, births, and deaths; how much they were bought or sold for; who remained loyal to their masters and who rebelled. Ball thought the slaves' descendants might be interested. In return, he imagined, some of them might help him complete the legacy of the plantations by sharing their own family stories. Believing that "the progeny of slaves and the progeny of slaveowners are forever linked," Ball moved back to Charleston.

Not everyone was happy about his project. "You're going to dig up my grandfather and hang him!" one older male cousin protested. Ball had expected some resistance from family members who wanted to protect themselves. What unnerved him was an editorial in the City Sun, a New York City African-American newspaper, that called him "Massa" and bitterly declared that "once again you want to rape us for our resources." Ball began to question the wisdom of his project. Should he leave the story of slavery to black historians and journalists? Was he indeed stealing someone else's past? No, he determined, that past was part of the shared history he was trying to re-create. "The plantation heritage was not `ours,' like a piece of family property, and not `theirs,' belonging to black families," he writes, but something mutual.

With the support of other relatives, including his mother and brother, and that of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogi-cal Society, Ball spent more than a year digging into family and government ar-chives throughout the South. From Elias "Red Cap" Ball, who came to South Carolina from Devon, England, in 1698, down to Nat, Ball's grandfather, who was part of the last generation born on the plantations in the late 1800s, the family history was rife with contradictions. "They were law-abiding citizens, churchgoers, taxpayers, parents who took care of their children," Ball says. "They were remarkable people who were capable of terrible things."

The most blatant cruelties, such as cutting off the toes of runaway workers and forcing black women into sexual relationships, were inflicted by Ball men, but the women were hardly bystanders. Ann Ball, who helped her husband run Midway plantation during the late 1700s and early 1800s, was quick to whip a black worker named Betty for bringing her towels that were not clean enough. "[Betty's] astonishment almost made me laugh," she wrote in a letter to her husband. The white masters generally viewed their slaves not as people with their own culture and history, but as chattel. In the archives Ball found reference to an outdoor market near his family's plantations where taxes were collected on "every horse, mare, gelding, calf, or slave" sold.

Still, reading records was the easy part. The hard part was facing the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the people his ancestors had bought and sold like livestock. To find them, Ball wrote letters to African-American newspapers such as the City Sun, made hundreds of cold calls to people in South Carolina with the same last names as Ball slaves, and knocked on doors in rural hamlets near the old plantations. Some descendants welcomed him warmly; a few were so angry they could barely look him in the eye. Most were suspicious, yet curious: who was this "blue-blood white boy," as one woman called him, wanting to swap family stories?

Ball's interviews with the descendants, though often awkward and tense, are what make Slaves in the Family come alive. For example, ninety-three-year-old Emily Frayer, a Charleston resident whose grandparents were slaves, told Ball how her great-grandfather was sold from one plantation to another. "So he left a family on Limerick, went to Stoney Landing, and started another family," Ball summarizes. "He didn't `left,'" Frayer corrects him. "They sold him. They been selling you just like you sell a chicken."

Thomas Martin, a retired teacher and school administrator in Charleston and the grandson of a Ball slave, had to deal with the fact that his grandfather actually seemed to have liked his masters. The elder Martin wrote letters to the Balls in the 1920s and 1930s that were signed "your obedient Henry" and in-cluded sentences such as "As long as there are Balls I will have mistresses and masters." Reading those letters brought to him by Ed Ball, Thomas Martin imagined that if his grandfather were still alive, he would be murdered. "The average black youngster...would be so angry because of his kind feelings toward the white people," he says in Slaves in the Family. Martin himself felt the same way as a young man. "I was unable to do what I wanted, and I blamed it on slavery, or rather, on white people," he told Ball. Today he is more forgiving. "I don't think we will ever get anywhere, blacks and whites, until we're able to sit down together," he says.

Ball is full of remorse during these interviews, and once or twice he even apologizes for his family's slave-owning ways - "an important step," he says. Yet when he apologizes to Emily Frayer, she admonishes him: "You been on God's mantelpiece that time. That's out of your jurisdiction altogether." Only God can forgive the sins of slavery, she seems to be saying, and only those who committed the sins can ask for forgiveness. That she and Ed Ball can visit the plantation where she was born and weep together will have to suffice. "You could have come a long time ago, but you come in due time," she tells him. "You'll mend many fences."

Ball's experience researching and writing Slaves in the Family was "deeply cathartic," he says. He feels that he's achieved "partial reconciliation" with some of the descendants of his family's slaves, although "what happened between my family and theirs is so nightmarish," he admits, "that we can never get full reconciliation." Still, he says he remains close to several of the families he interviewed.

That's not enough for Tony Curry, who attended a February lecture Ball gave at the Penn Center, an African-American cultural and historical organization on South Carolina's St. Helena Island. "It's about time whites came clean," Curry said after the lecture. "There's powerful self-denial among European Americans, so [Ball]'s owning up is a good thing. But if that's all he does, then it's just a liberal thing." Curry suggests that Ball donate a portion of his book's profits to a black organization or set up a foundation dedicated to a black cause. Ball is considering the idea. "That would be a giant step," Curry says. "That would be redemption."

Despite Curry's pointed comments at the Penn Center, the other questions asked of Ball at the racially mixed event were softer and more generic. Some people in the audience appeared reluctant to touch a nerve. That discomfort came into sharp focus the next day, when Ball presented the same lecture to the overwhelmingly white Beaufort County Historical Society, less than ten miles away from St. Helena Island. "What was their reaction at the Penn Center?" one historical society member asked timidly.

The racial gulf in Beaufort County doesn't seem unusual to Ball. It's part of the legacy of slavery, imprinted on whites just as firmly - though differently - as on blacks. One way to start closing that gulf, Ball believes, is to share the history of slavery, as he has tried to do. At the end of Slaves in the Family, he calls on other descendants of slave owners, as well as collectors of plantation-era records, to donate their materials to public archives. Those letters and property accounts, he writes, contain the family histories of millions of people. Ball's own family story, which had previously been told only around the dinner table, turned out to be the story of hundreds of families. Those families deserve to know how their ancestors lived and died, says Ball. Telling their stories is the only way he can begin to make amends.

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July / August 1998