Shared Blood

Edward Ball


     ... won the National Book Award for Slaves in the Family. A descendant one of South Carolina’s oldest families, Mr. Ball was born in Savannah, Georgia. He left the South, graduated from Brown University and became a columnist for The Village Voice. Then he returned to Charleston and South Carolina to discover the story of his own family and the Africans and African-Americans they bought, sold and controlled. Mr. Ball now lives in Connecticutt.

Edited Excerpts - Edward Ball
Conversation 1 RealAudio3:25
Reconciliation is possible between the descentants of American slaves and American slave owners. Edward Ball is leading the way. First he wrote Slaves in the Family, which won the National Book Award. Then he joined with others in the Ball family -- both black and white -- to form “The Committee of Descendants.” It is a non-profit organization which the European-American Mr. Ball and his African-American Ball relatives created to begin to heal their own family’s painful past.

The white Balls of South Carolina have been here since 1698. The black Balls followed almost immediately, under radically different circumstances. The white Balls were large scale slave owners for 170 years. They owned 25 rice plantations and enslaved close to 4,000 people over a period of 5 generations. The white family’s tradition was based on two pillars: that they were gentle masters and that there was no black and white sex on the Ball plantations. Both were false. In coming to terms with this past, Mr. Ball met some of the 75,000 to 100,000 people descended from people held in bondage on Ball plantations. They had a lot to talk about.

Edward Ball is not a squeamish man. As part of scraping away three hundred years of self-serving family lore, he went to Sierra Leone. He sought out and found descendants of slave traders who sold their neighbors, people the Balls bought. While not excusing the sellers, Mr. Ball’s conclusion is that the greater evil was perpetrated in the New World, by those who chose to found and perpetuate our economy on the backs of slaves.

Deafening silence in his own family triggered Mr. Ball’s search for the rest of the family history. It forced him back to South Carolina after making a successful journalistic career in New York City. Once home again, he was compelled to democratize America’s history, to tell the other half of the story -- the black slave experience -- starting at home.

Pain was part of the price Mr. Ball paid for his efforts, and so did both black and white relatives. But they got through it. The net result for Edward Ball is a committed optimism. He’s convinced that reconciliation can be ours if we chose to look squarely at our past. And to get to know each other, individually and as families.

The American family has also been too long silent, Mr. Ball believes. First, we must be accountable (not guilty). Then we must act. The Committee of Descendants has decided to fund restitution and memorial projects. (Forty percent of white Americans entered America through Ellis Island and 40% of black Americans entered through Charleston. Where Ellis Island is now a monument, not a single stone in Charleston stands to commemorate the black experience there.)

Mr. Ball challenges the sanitized version of America’s past. He calls us all to respect the horrific personal experiences of slavery in America, before and after European-Americans won their political freedom from England. Most of all, Mr. Ball wants us to tell the truth. All of it. Because the truth, Edward Ball has discovered for himself, can set us free.

[This Program was recorded in 1999, in Charleston, South Carolina, US.]


Conversation 1

Edward Ball offers Paula Gordon and Bill Russell a picture of slave-trading Charleston. He describes the first ordeal surviving African slaves faced on arriving in Charleston harbor. He compares their physical condition to what voluntary immigrants experienced at Ellis Island. He describes the plantations where captives became part of huge force labor camps.


Conversation 2

Charleston’s Olde English charms disguise the other world which stood behind the big houses. Mr. Ball tells some of the secrets within the walls of both. He explains why he thinks it’s important to tell the black majority’s story, side by side with that of the white minority. Mr.Ball offers a glimpse into the essentially black culture everywhere outside of coastal cities during slave days. He recalls the Ball family’s 170 years as rice plantation owners who enslaved close to 4000 people over a period of 5 generations. He describes the two (false) pillars of his family’s tradition -- that the Balls were “gentle masters” and that there was no black and white sex on Ball plantations. He discredits half–truths that continue to be told. He draws from Ball plantation records for vivid examples of slavery.


Conversation 3

Most of America’s thirty-three million black people descended from people who were enslaved, according to Mr. Ball. He describes his attempt, as a descendent of a slave-owning family, to reach out to some of today’s families whose ancestors were enslaved by his ancestors. He recounts his journey of discovery among the white Ball family (leading lights in Charleston since 1698), among whom the silence about slaves and slavery was deafening. He recalls his family’s full range of reactions to telling the whole truth. He explains the importance he places on acknowledging the painful stories of 75,000 to 100,000 black Americans today whose ancestors were enslaved by various Balls. He describes how the white and black sides of his family gradually became part of each others' lives. He begins the story of the apartheid-style American society that survived from Freedom until about 1970.


Conversation 4

America is a country founded on forced labor, Mr. Ball says clearly. He suggests personal ways to come to terms with the uncomfortable realities that surround that economic decision. He recalls his trip to Sierra Leone (an “echo-chamber) and his conversations with descendants of those who sold their neighbors into bondage. He concludes that the majority of the exploitation took place on this side of the ocean. He distinguishes guilt -- which he deems inappropriate -- from accountability -- which he thinks is required. He portrays how disfigured our society based on slavery was and is. He addresses the great divide still apparent between black people and white people. He tells us why speaking honestly about individual experiences can mend that tear.


Conversation 5

Edward Ball is optimistic about the possibility of reconciliation between black and white people. He explains why and offers ideas about how individuals can go about that work: Start by asking “Who am I? What is my family experience? What did it make me?” He gives an example from his own family. He describes the labor system of which slavery was a crucial part. He reminds us that colonists had choices -- some declined to practice slavery while people in other parts of the colonies (including Virginia, South Carolina, New York) consciously chose slavery as part of their founding economic system.


Conversation 6

Mr. Ball remembers his experience as a person raised in the South, trying to re-invent himself into a new identity. He tells us why that was impossible. He explains The Committee of Descendants, a non-profit organization formed by a group of (black and white) Balls, created to support restitution projects. Noting that currently there are no monuments to black people’s slave experience, he suggests the kinds of projects that might memorialize it.



Edward Ball worked closely with us in making this program come to pass. Then he gave up a lovely spring Sunday afternoon to be our Guest, while he and his fiance were busy getting ready for their forthcoming wedding. We thank him for his commitment and for sharing it with us.

This program was enriched by the enthusiam of our friends who had gathered in Charleston for an Occasional Reunion. We thank them all.


Related Links:

Slaves in the Family is published by The Ballantine Publishing Group.

Slavery and racism are central facts in American history, facts which continue to challenge us.  Unsurprisingly, many of our conversations have touched on these subjects:

Simon Schama has written of the emancipation movement in England and the return to Africa of a small number of slaves freed by the British during the American Revolution.

Taylor Branch has written three volumes providing a definitive history of America's Civil Rights struggle during the 1950s and '60s.

John Hope Franklin has helped change our understanding of the the Civil War and its aftermath.

John Lewis was on the front lines of the Civil Rights struggle.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has brought to light fiction written by slave women before the Civil War.

Doris Kearns Goodwin's study of Abraham Lincoln and his administration provides a fresh view of the "great emancipator."

David Reynolds tells how John Brown helped undermine American slavery.

Darlene Clark Hine writes about Black women in American history.

Nick Bryant has written about Pres. Kennedy's leadership failures during that struggle.

Gail Buckley tells the story of African Americans' military service throughout American history.

Iman broke the color barrier in American high fashion.

Edward P. Jones' fiction provides a rich, complex understanding of race in America.

Randall Kennedy examines the social, cultural and legal constraints on interracial intimacies.

Richard Rodriguez argues that Americans are fundamentally Brown.

The late Iris Chang reported on racism and disenfranchisement of Chinese Americans.

In her novels and essays, Pearl Cleage reports on the current status of African Americans.

Hugh Masekela used his version of American music to help overthrow the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Barney Pityana was a leader in that same struggle and in the rebuilding of South Africa.

Cornel West argues that America has the unique benefit of three traditions (Greek, Hebrew and African) from which to build a more successful democracy.

Elisabeth Lasch Quinn shows how greed, self-absorption and bad psychology undermined the Civil Rights movement.

Dudley Clendinen tells of the Gay community's struggle for Civil Rights.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole and Beverly Guy-Sheftall look at Black women's stuggle for equality within their own communities.

Mark Curriden & LeRoy Phillips Jr. wrote of how the lynching of a Black man in Tennessee changed America's legal system.

Jason DeParle and David Shipler have both written of the lingering economic and cultural effects of slavery.


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