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Edward Ball: “Slaves in the Family”

November 24, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The winner in the nonfiction category this year was Edward Ball for his book, Slaves in the Family. It’s about the lives of his slave-owning ancestors on their rice plantations near Charleston, South Carolina. The book also tells the story of some of the thousands of slaves the Ball family once owned. Edward Ball was a columnist for the “Village Voice” from 1989 to 1994. “Slaves in the Family” is his first book. Thank you for being with us, Mr. Ball, and congratulations.

EDWARD BALL, National Book Award, Nonfiction: Well, thank you. It’s good to be here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What led you to write this book?

EDWARD BALL: Well, all of us in the Ball family in South Carolina from the time we’re children hear stories about our ancestors, the slave owners. My father told me stories when I was growing up in the 1960′s, but he never said much about the slaves, even though – I learned later – our family controlled some 25 rice plantations and enslaved close to 4,000 Africans and African-Americans over a period of 170 years. It was a big gap in the story that I wanted to fill.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So your goal was as much to find out about the slaves as about your ancestors and their lives, which you also cover very – you know – very distinctly and with a lot of detail in the book.

EDWARD BALL: Well, I thought that the black story and the white story should be told side by side. You know, we hear a lot about the plantation owners, but we don’t hear enough about the people with whom they lived and who made their lives possible. And I thought that I should try to write a shared history – black with whites side by side. But more important than that was my attempt to find black families today whose ancestors were enslaved by my family and to meet with them and try to reckon with this shared legacy.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How did you find out about the slaves in the past and then how did you find their descendants?

EDWARD BALL: As it happens, the Balls were very meticulous record keepers and our families saved some 10,000 pages of documents about their business. It happened to be the business of slave owning, including slave lists, receipts for the purchase and sale of people, and correspondence. And all these materials survived, and they’re housed in public libraries in the South, so I studied them, and they helped me to reconstruct the story before 1865, before the end of the Civil War. Then I began to try to find black families whose ancestors lived on these plantations. I contacted people who had the same surname as those last names taken by freed slaves to the Balls. And people began to contact me, and gradually I began to find people all around the country.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about Emily Frayer, this was one of the slaves you found, and we have a picture of you with her visiting one of the plantations. Tell us about how you found her and about this trip.

EDWARD BALL: Emily Frayer is the descendant of a family enslaved by the Balls. Her grandparents were owned -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: That’s her in the center, by the way, right in front of you in the picture.

EDWARD BALL: Right. When I met her, she was 93. She’s now 97. She’s still alive. Her grandparents were owned by the Balls, by my great grandfather, on a place called Limerick Plantation, and her family is unusual because they have a lot of oral tradition that dates from before the Civil War. As you probably know, a lot of black families do not know where their ancestors were enslaved.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We’re seeing Limerick, the big house in Limerick right now.

EDWARD BALL: Right. This is the place where Emily Frayer’s grandparents and forebears before that lived and worked and her grandparents told her a lot about what they went through, and she shared that with me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: She also told you the story from her point of view, which you knew from your own family’s point of view, about the freeing of the slaves. Tell us about that.

EDWARD BALL: Sure. Well, her grandmother was a house slave to my great grandfather, William James Ball, at Limerick, and when the Yankees arrived on the lawn of Limerick to force emancipation, Emily Frayer’s grandmother was there when they showed up, and so she told me what happened.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What happened? Read it for us, actually.

EDWARD BALL: Sure. I’ll read it to you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is the way you wrote it up in the book.

EDWARD BALL: That’s right. Yes. I was meeting with Mrs. Frayer one day in a room full of her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and she was telling the story as she had told it many times before to her family. “My grandmother,” she began, “she said she was standin’ in the door.” The door was that of the Ball house at Limerick. “They knew freedom was comin’,” said someone in the room. “She standin’ in the door and the Yankees come through and take her hat off.”My grandmother said she had a scull cap on. And he took it off her head and throw ‘em up. The Yankee said, ‘you’re free as a bird in the air.’ She said she drop on her knee and said, ‘Thank God, and thank you, masser,’ to the Yankee.” “There were giggles around the room and a sigh of relief. Mrs. Frayer laughed at the memory.” “I declare we little children done cry from all we hear,” Emily Frayer said. “She stared ahead.” “My grandmother said, ‘They tell ‘em to find everybody who’d been hidin’ and tell ‘em you’re free.’”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you had the same story from your own family records?

EDWARD BALL: Yes. The woman in the Limerick master’s house was a woman named Mary Ball, and she wrote a diary that described the events of that day, and she described the Yankee’s comin’ up the drive and throwin’ open the door to the house and stalking in the living room and demanding to talk to the black folks. And the black folks assembled on the lawn, according to Mary Ball, and the Yankees said to them, “You’re free as a bird in the air.” And so the story was, more or less, identical. The oral tradition of Emily Frayer’s family and the written tradition that’s to survive in the diaries of the Balls.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Ball, you also found cousins who are descendants of the union of your ancestors with slaves, right?

EDWARD BALL: That’s true. I made no special effort to find black cousins that we have, though I thought I might find them, and I did find four or five families who had oral tradition that their ancestors included men in the Ball family, as well as black women whom they owned. And in the case of two families I was able to find enough circumstantial and paper evidence to corroborate these stories.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We have a picture of you, yes, with Carolyn Goodson.

EDWARD BALL: Carolyn Goodson is from a family that descends from a Ball cousin in the 1840′s, who had a slave mistress named Diana, and their mixed-race child was named Frederick and that’s Carolyn’s great, great grandfather, and Carolyn’s family lives in Philadelphia. And she invited me to her house, and when she opened the door, she embraced me in the way that someone would embrace a long lost cousin and she fed me, and we talked for long hours, and we became friends.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What did your white family think about this?

EDWARD BALL: Well, to be honest, it caused some nervousness in the family, continues to do so. It’s not a common thing for a Southern white family to go out and seek their black cousins. Many black families have oral tradition that states precisely who their white relatives are because of black and white sex on the plantations many years ago. And they know who their white cousins are. But in white families these memories have been stamped out, because the taboo was too strong. So it was very much breaking a taboo to do this, and I think it caused some upset in my family.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You got some criticism from African-American writers. Brent Staples of the New York Times criticized the book for its superficial treatment of the descendants of the slaves and wrote, “Having enriched Ball lives in the past, the survivors of the slaves are being called upon to perform that function again. What’s your response to that sort of criticism?

EDWARD BALL: Well, the book has been widely welcomed in the mainstream, but it is attacked on the fringes by extreme opinion makers, and it’s because slavery is like an electrical fence. It’s – when you touch it, it shocks people. And I understand how it might upset black intellectuals who think that this is really a subject only suited to black writers, and it also upsets some white writers, who think that we have – we should really just stop – stop stirring up trouble by talking about slavery. So I understand that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Ball. And congratulations again.

EDWARD BALL: Well, thank you very much.