Slaves in the Family

Edward Ball
January 1998

Slaves in the Family is the story of one man’s exploration of his family’s slave-owning past and his search for the descendants of the people his ancestors kept as slaves.

In 1698, Elias Ball traveled from his home in Devon, England to Charleston, South Carolina to take possession of his inheritance: part of a plantation and twenty slaves. Elias and his progeny built an American dynasty that lasted for six generations, acquiring more than twenty plantations along the Cooper River near Charleston, selling rice known as Carolina Gold, and enslaving close to four thousand Africans and African Americans until 1865, when Union troops arrived on the lawns of the Balls’ estates to force emancipation.

Edward Ball, a descendant of Elias, has written a nonfiction American saga that is part history, part journey of discovery. This is the story of black and white families who have lived side by side through three hundred years, a tale of everyday people who face their vexed inheritance together.  Ball chronicles the people who lived on his ancestors’ lands: the violence and the opulence, the slave uprisings and escapes, the white and black heroes of the American Revolution, the mulatto children of Ball masters and “Ball slaves,” and the culminating shock of the Civil War.  He reconstructs the genealogies of slave families—from the first African captives, through ten generations, to the present.

Most remarkable, Edward Ball travels all over the United States to meet descendants of Ball slaves, who number upwards of 100,000 living Americans. In a series of memorable encounters, Ball hears from black families—some of whom are his blood kin—their stories, passions, and dreams, and reveals how the effects of slavery live on in black and white life and memory.

Slaves in the Family is a microcosm of America’s defining national experience, a story of people confronting their inescapable common humanity.