Tracing slavery from 'The Other Side'


March 25, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Radio listeners have a fascinating opportunity tomorrow to consider America's slaveholding past from a rarely heard perspective.

In "The Other Side," airing on NPR's "Weekend Edition" (8 a.m. on WJHU-FM 88.1), a New York-based print journalist from a comfortable Southern upbringing recounts his efforts to find descendants of slaves owned by his plantation forebears.

"To this day my motives are not clear," says writer Edward Ball early in the program. "But when I look across the rice fields where thousands of people worked, I want to hear their story told alongside my family's tale."

He says, "A family is made up of what it remembers and what it forgets. But most important are the things families would like to forget."

In an interview this week, Mr. Ball explained the idea grew from attending a family reunion of descendants of his grandfather, Nathaniel Ingraham Ball.

"The story of the slavery period is often told, but by white people about white people and by black people about black people," he noted.

He found that his descendants owned plantations in the Charleston, S.C. area, and his research revealed more than 2,000 people were born into slavery under Ball family ownership between 1800 and 1865.

"Over the years I've heard a lot about the Balls . . . but I never heard much about the slaves," he recalls in the program.

Listeners hear him tell a family member he wants to find slave descendants, but he receives a discouraging reply:

"You talking about the darkies? To find out where they are? That would be almost impossible."

Not quite. It turned out to be only very difficult, in a detective process taking more than eight months.

For one thing, slaves often had no American surnames and their first names were often the same. Further, some white descendants of the plantation people Mr. Ball found were skeptical, disinterested and still prejudiced.

Finally, with the help of an 1866 sharecroppers' contract located in the Duke University Library, Mr. Ball tracks down 93-year-old Emily Frayer, who tells stories about her slave ancestors on Ball plantations -- including her grandmother's recollections of emancipation.

Interviews with several other slave ancestors follow. But the show climaxes movingly as Mr. Ball takes Mrs. Frayer back to Hyde Park plantation, the former Ball property on which she was born.

He says, "I apologize to her for what my family did to her family. In the shadow of what actually happened, it is a self-serving, token remark, and she receives it with grace."

"You didn't have to wait now to come, you could have come long time, but you come in due time . . . you come in due time," she says.

Mr. Ball says he left the South when he was 12, studied in the Northeast and feels himself a Yankee in the eyes of Southerners. He thinks of himself as "a de-raciated Southerner," and part of his motivation for the project was to find his own roots.

"It occurred to me that no families of former planters, no governments, have ever tried to . . . make a moral reconciliation about what happened," said the writer.

Mr. Ball hopes to interest a publisher in a more detailed, book-length exploration of his reconciliation efforts.

He sought to produce the story on radio, he explained, because "the voices of people involved speak much louder than my encapsulating their words on the printed page."

NPR responded to his written proposal quickly and positively, and he also credits "The Other History" to NPR producer David Isay.

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