Priscilla, a Slave

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. investigates the life of a slave known only as Priscilla. As just a young girl, Priscilla was purchased at a slave auction in South Carolina by a rice planter, Elias Ball. She arrived on Ball’s South Carolina rice plantation in 1756, alone, without family. Ball valued children as a long-term investment. He bought six children, none of them older than ten. In a memoir, Ball advised, “Do two things with your money, buy land, and buy young slaves.”

In Priscilla’s time, South Carolina had more black slaves than it did white citizens, but a rice plantation’s setting alone could be deadly.  The swamp ground was covered with snakes. The tropical air was filled with malarial mosquitoes. A third of South Carolina’s slaves died within a year of their arrival. Nearly two-thirds of all children were dead before they turned 16. Priscilla beat the odds, and she and her children would survive.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. meets the fifth great grandson of Elias Ball, Edward Ball, who wrote about his family’s history of slave ownership in the book, “Slaves in the Family.”  Professor Gates and Ball tour the old plantation, discussing Priscilla and early slavery in the United States.

To learn more about Priscilla and her direct descendants living in the United States today, tune in to PBS on October 22, 2013, 8-9 pm ET, for episode one of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Check the local listings on the broadcast schedule.



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  • Jeannine Gant

    This is a great show. Very enlightening, but in trying to be politically correct, I kept hearing reference to the African American slave. Can you really be an African American slave or should the correct reference be African slave or slave of African decent. Can you be American (denoting citizenship) and a slave at the same time?

    • Elka

      Jeannine, excellent point. This is something that has always annoyed me. It seems contrived, disingenuous, and
      flat out wrong to refer to African enslaved people as African-”Americans.” There was no
      citizenship, and no rights or legal recourse to speak of. It strikes me as an attempt to play some kind of game of respectability politics with an institution that was anything but.

    • Candice

      Excellent point. I agree. We are Africans, end of discussion. But then again some Black people want to claim being Native American. Black people want to be everything except for African but I blame it on our self-hatred conditioning. We have a lot of work to do.

    • Charles

      I agree, I have a friend who is “Native American”, but he says hot to call him that because his people were here long before it was called America!

  • Tammy Brantley Patterson

    Very informative. Connection between African Americans, Haiti, and Spain.

    • Guest

      The term “enslaved humans,” or “enslaved people,” is more like it was – humans enslaved by other humans, people enslaved by other people. The term “slave” sounds like something less than human, almost making the cruel act of slavery sound justifiable. Just thinking.

  • Albry

    Jeanine you are correct, we are a people of African descent, but aren’t all people based on how the world was populated? During 1500 – 1800 we were African slaves in America, our ancestors were not afforded citizenship in America. Today I consider myself a Black American of African descent and yes Candice self hate plays a major part in our self identification.

  • Dianne C. Yarbrough

    The term “enslaved humans,” or “enslaved people,” is more like it was – humans enslaved by other humans, people enslaved by other people. The term “slave” sounds like something less than human, almost making the cruel, heinous act of slavery sound justifiable.

  • Lisa

    I might watch this story but I’m pretty tired of the media rehashing slavery. What would impress me would be a mini series about the history of Africa pre/post colonization. Slavery is not African history….it interrupted African history!!! Tell us about the first center of higher learning, Timbuktu, and the richest man in all of history Mansa Musa of Mali, tell us that the ancient Egyptians were black, tell us that we were kings and queens with an abundance of wealth and natural resources before Europeans came and stole everything…including the people. Now that is something I would love to watch!

    • quoVadis w. wright

      good,please and thank you..

  • Rich

    How does a black person today feel about another black person owning other black people(historically)?

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