Book: Slaves in the Family

If you’re at all a history buff, generally of the southern kind, specifically of the antebellum South Carolina kind, then I have a great read for you.

Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball.

I first discovered this book after getting involved in researching my family’s genealogical histories, which also led me to be more interested in the history of where I now reside—in a neighborhood like any other but that was developed on what used to be the land of a very prominent lowcountry rice plantation.

Edward Ball, the author, grew up primarily in New York, distanced from his southern relatives he really never knew and distanced from really knowing about his family’s past as being one of the largest plantation families owning—by my count of the map presented in the front of his book—24 plantations along the upper Cooper River in South Carolina’s lowcountry. For over 150 years of enslaved times, the Ball family as a whole owned more than 4,000 slaves.

After being prompted to attend a Ball Family Reunion, to be held on the origin of their family’s plantation owning days, Comingtee Plantation, and after much hesitation to do so, Edward Ball attended and came to the conclusions there was more to this story. How could his family live alongside this many slaves for so many years and only know a first name (and not their true first name).

Slaves in the Family explains Edward’s move to Charleston. He locates one of his ancestors Charleston proper homes and resides in it will researching and writing. He explores the papers and books that had been handed down to him that he’d never really explored or understood. Actual ledgers and listings of slave purchases, plantation transactions, memoirs of his ancestors lead him on his plight of finding present day living descendants of slaves that lived on his family’s plantations.

What’s truly fascinating to me is his ability to connect with these living descendants in ways which really bring them connection and fellowship. As we all know, education and slavery did not walk hand in hand. And slaves had little option but to rely on oral history and verbal passing of their memories and lives to future generations. Meanwhile, plantation owners were free to record whatever they desired and were privy to documenting and storing the pages of their lives. Edward Ball is able on many circumstances to find documentation about the enslaved ancestors and research their history, and not only just provide this for the living descendants, but find connections through the same stories. Truly proving the strength and power of the slave’s oral histories that often times match the documented slave owner’s accounts or were even stronger. What great irony.

Spending my whole life on some stretch of the Cooper River but currently residing upon one of the previous Ball Plantations, my husband and I spend many of our days out in the old rice fields of these plantations. It’s where we fish and boat all summer, it’s where we duck hunt all winter. It’s not just that we enjoy the river as thousands of Lowcountry residents do—it’s that we’re immersed in the very fields Edward Ball writes about. The very fields that slaves were responsible for transporting their byproduct down stream navigating the very dikes they built and the ones we still navigate today.

It’s one thing to go out on a boat in the summer with your friends and be on the Cooper. But to really know the bends and curves; to feel the creeks and wade in the tides of these old rice fields. ­For me, it’s a much richer experience to enter in the pure darkness of 4:00 in the morning knowing you’re standing on the dikes that purely exist because some 200–300 years ago, slaves dug this river this way. To await shooting time during duck season while watching, hearing, and feeling the land awake around you in these fields honestly amazes me every time.

To be able to connect with history—good or bad—in this way, is why I love living here. Why our children and grandchildren will know this land and her stories the we have been taught and continue to learn about every day.

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