Secret Author Edward Ball felt duty-bound to set free the truth about his ancestors' slavehalding past. He says he did it for the descendants, white and black.

THE FAMILY

March 07, 1998|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Families seldom admit wrongdoing," an older relative told Edward Ball when he began the inquiry that would become his new book, "Slaves in the Family."

A family reunion in 1993 had convinced Ball that he must confront his family's slaveholding past, and learn about the other families who had lived on the Ball plantations. "I brought out a photograph of Isaac the Confederate, Dad's grandfather, and the faceless crowd of slaves gathered before my eyes once more," he writes.

The Balls of South Carolina had been rice planters, owning up to 4,000 slaves at one point. Their descendants shared none of this wealth -- the land along the Cooper River outside Charleston had been sold off long before Ball was born to an Episcopalian priest and his wife. But Ball felt he was accountable -- his word -- for what had happened in his family.

His book begins:

"My father had a little joke that made light of our legacy as a family that had once owned slaves. 'There are five things we don't talk about in the Ball family,' he would say. 'Religion, sex, death, money, and the Negroes.'

" 'What does that leave to talk about?' my mother asked once.

" 'That's another of the family secrets,' Dad said, smiling."

But there also were prevailing myths in the Ball family, stories that passed from generation to generation. These stories maintained that the Balls were benevolent slaveowners who eschewed miscegenation. Ball's research would give the lie to these myths, disturbing some of his relatives. "You're digging up my grandfather to hang him," said one older cousin, who wanted nothing to do with Ball's project.

But Ball was far more interested in developing a history of the Ball slaves, whose descendants exist in far greater numbers than the Balls -- 75,000 to 100,000 by the end of this century, by his estimate. Ultimately, he traveled all the way to Sierra Leone, where he met with the descendants of slave traders.

A former columnist for the Village Voice, Ball made a 35-minute radio feature about his family, "The Other History," for National Public Radio in 1994. This was expanded into "Slaves in the Family" (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $30), published last month.

Ball, 39, will be at Bibelot-Woodholme at 7: 30 p.m. on Monday to discuss his book. We caught up with him in his native Savannah, Ga., at the beginning of a book tour that has gained wide interest, with coverage in Time magazine and an appearance on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Sun: From the beginning, there seems to have been some remarkable serendipity in your search. You go to this black genealogy group, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and there's a woman, "Denise Collins," whose great-grandmother, Katie Heyward, was a Ball slave.

Ball: That meeting was one of the remarkable encounters of the project and it still strikes me, it still surprises me. I think that in doing this work, people have made my work easier. I've been encouraged by many strangers who have helped me, who believe that it's important for the health of both whites and blacks that someone talk honestly about the slaves' past and the legacy of the plantations. Anonymous contributors provided me with information, opened doors and made suggestions.

Privacy

Anonymous and pseudonymous -- Why did you allow several people to use false names in the narrative, including that descendant of Katie Heyward?

Living people have the right to privacy, and I respect that. Dead people have no right to privacy. Legally speaking.

What about ethically speaking?

Ethically speaking, I think that the needs of millions of black Americans to understand what happened to their families and the needs of white Americans to come to a place of acknowledgment about the legacy of slavery in America outweigh the ethical restraint that you might have when talking about dead people. I'm talking about my own family in this case.

Do you feel that you did, in fact, dig up your cousin's grandfather and hang him?

I believe, actually, by contrast, that I have treated everyone I wrote about with enormous care. I have described things only for which I found evidence and I have not accused anyone, living or dead, of anything. I have merely told a story. I haven't defamed the Ball family, I haven't written an opinion column about slavery. The book is a piece of historical narrative and journalism, it's not an editorial.

It seems so obvious that the myths of plantation life -- no cruelty, no sexual intermingling -- were just that, myths. Did you really believe that your own family had been such exemplary slaveholders?

Well, if you talk to families such as mine around the South and around America whose ancestors were slaveowners, you generally will hear that: "It wasn't us who mistreated people. It wasn't us, it wasn't our men who slept with black women, it was other people, next door."

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