Slaves in the Family


One of the highlights during the days of computer madness was a talk by Edward Ball, author of the magnificent Slaves in the Family. The winner of a National Book Award, it is an account of his search for descendants of the enslaved men and women who toiled on the huge and sprawling Ball rice plantations in South Carolina.

Aside from the dreadful racket of the air conditioner and confusing directions to the talk, which was supposed to be free, the event was a smashing success.

Professor Ball (he teaches English at Yale) framed his lecture and PowerPoint around the stories his father told – of their ancestors, the vast land holdings, and Civil War service – with those that they didn’t, most especially about “the Negroes.”

He explained how he came to begin the work, following a reunion in which no one uttered a single word about the people the family had enslaved.

There are so many echoes of Faulkner here – the convoluted family stories with white privilege at the forefront, but there’s also an Old World aspect. The colonial-style “big houses” on the plantations pre-dated the structures of the Cotton Belt by fifty or sixty years. Those South Carolina houses did not look nearly as elegant or Tara-like even before they fell into disrepair.

Professor Ball appeared more than grateful for the welcome from the most of the descendants of the enslaved, including his distant cousins. He was modest about the subject, but it was obvious that he had as much to offer them as they did. In many cases he was able to provide details about sales and punishments and births and deaths of their ancestors.

He also recognized how fortunate he was to have a trove of information that was prepared over three centuries and preserved in university archives. There’s an essay about how the descendant of the enslavers has to access a written record denied to the enslaved.

Professor Ball melded humor and southern charm and combined the best of college teaching and journalism. Wish I could take one of his classes. We think he survived a Civil War re-enactment from the Union side without mishap.

He was mobbed after the talk, as he sold and autographed books so I didn’t have a chance to tell him about my family’s connection to the subjects of The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South, concerning the Harlestons.

Professor Ball’s distant cousin “Gussie” Harleston (Mrs. Edwina Harleston Whitlock) makes an appearance in Slaves in the Family and features prominently in Sweet Hell. She visited my parents in the early 1980s. Her father was the illustrious painter Edwin (“Teddie”) Harleston who knew my mother’s aunt and uncle, Helen and Frank Chisholm who owned a number of the paintings.

When I was computerless, I looked up what Mother wrote about the family in her journal, which I reproduced in At Home Inside. I’ll post it tomorrow. It reveals much about my mother and a bit about Mrs. Whitlock.

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