Edward Ball's second tale: rising from race -- and falling

October 07, 2001|By Jean Thompson | By Jean Thompson,Sun Staff

The Sweet Hell Inside, by Edward Ball. William Morrow. 400 pages. $26.

"Family history is history in miniature," says Edward Ball.

In 1998, he chagrined some of his relatives and won the National Book Award by tracking down the descendants of slaves his ancestors had owned. His follow-up book to Slaves in the Family profiles one family he met along the way.

Meet the Harlestons of South Carolina. At the dawn of the 20th century, they were on their way to becoming wealthy, literate, world-traveled, politically active and socially conscious -- and they were black.

I'll wager that few can name an African-American figure from the South possessing such credentials: It just isn't taught in History 101. The Sweet Hell Inside opens a window into a segment of American society that has been stereotyped more often than studied, and more often than not ignored.

Thanks in large measure to Harlestons who have preserved a paper trail of wills, portraits, love letters and business records, a complex picture emerges of the precarious fortunes of African-American strivers after Emancipation. Through World War I and the Roaring 20s, up until the Crash dims their prospects, their triumphs and trials make an engaging saga.

The Harleston story began in the 1840s when a prominent white planter forces himself on a teen-age slave girl. Over many years, he used her as a concubine. Eventually, William Harleston and the slave, Kate Wilson, became a common-law couple, shunned by white society. They produced eight children.

After Harleston's death, one of Harleston's nephews cheated Kate out of her inheritance. Her family nevertheless rose from poverty, buoyed by the industry and ambition of her son, Edwin. He captained a sloop ferrying cotton from Georgia to North Carolina. Later, he made his fortune as a trained undertaker, serving Charleston's black mourners. His success ensured that his progeny would be college-educated and cultured.

Captain Harleston's colorful nemesis was the Parson Jenkins, a neighbor who founded an orphanage for black waifs and built its music program to international recognition. Harlestons thought they were better than Jenkinses: To block his daughter's scandal-tainted marriage to the Parson, the Captain went after him with a gun. Fortunately, the couple escaped. They presided over the continued accomplishments of the Harleston-Jenkins clan.

The families produced a composer, Edmund Jenkins, and a fine artist, Edwin A. "Teddy" Harleston. "Teddy" struggled at a time when few blacks could afford art and few whites would commission work from an African-American. Edmund wanted to write symphonies, but the blues wailed out of the South and the Jazz Age dawned. The musician fled to Europe, and the artist briefly went North, but neither could escape his roots.

Keep in mind that an estimated 90 percent of African-Americans at that time could not get a college education. Most scraped to survive close to the land while Harlestons and Jenkinses pursued the arts. Don't confuse them with the leisure class, however. Part of the "sweet Hell" they endured was being largely dependent on loans, houses and jobs from their patriarchs, who expected them to buckle down and work for the family businesses.

Hell was also the burden of being mixed race in a society that predicates status on skin color. To his credit, Ball does not whitewash the tale: Harlestons bought into the notion that they were somehow better than the darker, poorer masses because they were mixed race. Thus, their story is also America's shameful race consciousness and its corruption of family and community values.

In general, white society shuns them (though in hard times, Harleston money is still green). Yet their business ventures grow, often with the aid of sympathetic whites and the patronage of the darker citizenry. Harlestons are at the same time trailblazers and activists -- members of W.E.B. DuBois' "talented tenth," who will build institutions that uplift the race.

To me, their lowest moment is one of cruelty: Ella Harleston and the Parson flee to England to bear their love child, then leave the brown-skinned infant behind. Years later, after they have at last married, they create a charade to save face: They "adopt" her rather than acknowledge her as family. She never gets over this snub.

What Ball does best is render his subjects as human rather than as black caricatures who live to emulate the white upper class. In straightforward prose, he distills a mountain of archival research and oral history into memorable characters whose stories ring true.

For my taste, he stretches his "family" history too far. He details the fates of several Jenkins Orphanage Band members who took their places in the jazz world. Too many tales become digressions from the main story. Also, there is finer writing on the roots of jazz elsewhere.

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