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The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated Southby Edward Ball
Synopses & Reviews
William Harleston was born in 1804 at The Hut, a plantation owned by his parents, twenty-five miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. The Hut was one of several assets in a Harleston dynasty of land and slaves. (Other family estates were named Rice Hope and Richmond.) Few records have survived from William Harleston's youth. Even his birth date is in question — the year is known, but there is no record of the day — as though it had been clipped from memory. A genealogy states that he was one of five children, with three older sisters, Hannah, Sarah, and Constantia, and one younger brother, John. As a boy growing up on The Hut, a one-thousand-acre rice plantation with about sixty slaves, William would have passed his youth in ways appropriate to his class and sex: he hunted deer and fished, was schooled in classics and mathematics by private tutors, and attended the glittering society balls held every winter in nearby Charleston. The Harleston family's holdings made his life indolent and luxurious.
Despite its many comforts, William's childhood was strained by high expectations, because he carried the unusual burden of a heroic family legacy handed down by his father. In the 1770s, a quarter of a century before William's birth, the Harlestons had fought bravely during the Revolutionary War. William's father, William Harleston Sr., and his uncle Isaac had both risked everything to win American independence. Only twenty when the war began, William Senior served as an infantryman before returning to the family lands to help supply food to American soldiers; but Isaac, then in his thirties, passed through an extraordinary war. Isaac Harleston had left hisplantation, which was known as Irishtown, to become a captain in one of the earliest fights of the conflict, the Battle of Fort Sullivan, on June 28, 1776, a deadly assignment during which a few hundred American patriots repulsed an attack on Charleston by a flotilla of British warships. After that American victory, the British left the South alone for two years. In the meantime, Isaac loaned the revolutionary movement sixty-five hundred pounds, putting muscle in the phrase of the Declaration of Independence, "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Six months after the loan, in 1778, the British returned, and Isaac was elevated to the rank of major in command of the Sixth Regiment of the Continental army. He fought for eighteen months in various campaigns, but in May 1780 Isaac was in Charleston when it fell to the British, and he was taken prisoner. While many rebels now swore allegiance to the Crown in order to escape punishment, Major Harleston stayed true to the cause. Eventually Isaac was released to a victor's welcome and returned to quiet citizenship. He died in 1798.
To be an heir to such patriotism gave young William Harleston of The Hut the aura of an American prince.
As he grew up, William seemed ready to take his natural place in the elite circle of slaveholding landlords. But his own father foreshadowed another outcome when, adding to his white children, the elder William had a mixed-race son, born to one of his slaves. The name of the boy's mother has not survived, but the child was given the name Isaac, after the war hero. Although there was a taboo against interracial sex, in reality ruling-class men often had brown children with their black slaves. As longas the children were kept away from white relatives, and the taboo received lip service, silence about the offspring could be maintained. But this was not the case with Isaac.
Family tradition describes Isaac as a short brown man. Born a slave in the 1780s, the illicit Isaac grew up at The Hut and at some point was evidently given his freedom. However, instead of leaving the vicinity, a frequent outcome in such cases, Isaac stayed right in the thick of family business. He became a steward on a riverboat that his Harleston relatives used, then married and fathered three children of his own, the first of whom (his name was Edward) settled on the Harleston plantation known as Rice Hope. Rice Hope stood about a mile from The Hut, which meant that the young William, as an impressionable child, had ample time to see and speak to the living fruit of his father's wayward sexuality.
In South Carolina, a few rich families like the Harlestons lived comfortably, while the majority of people, black slaves, were consigned to a form of living hell. South Carolina covers a relatively small area, thirty-one thousand square miles, about a third less land than Virginia. But in William Harleston's day, Charleston, a large and queenly port city, set a worldly tone. Charleston ranked fourth in size in cities in the United States, after New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Its port shipped out homegrown necessities — mainly rice and cotton tilled by black hands — and received a stream of luxuries in return from the Northern states and from Europe. The tons of silver, imported clothing, and fine furniture that came back all floated up to the top tier of society. The crumbs fell to a poor white workingclass, and the dregs dribbled to the slaves.
Although the United States had banned the import of slaves in 1808, West Africans who had previously arrived in Charleston in chains filled the state. In 1820, blacks in South Carolina outnumbered whites 265,000 to 237,000. (The state was one of only two with a black majority, the other being Louisiana.) William's family was among the lucky few. With their houses in Charleston and plantations outside town, the Harlestons were within the wealthiest one percent of all Americans.
Census records show that during America's slaveholding years, there were more white bachelors living in the South than in the rest of the country. This anomaly was probably not the result of a surplus...
From National Book Award winner Edward Ball comes The Sweet Hell Inside, the story of the fascinating Harleston family of South Carolina, the progeny of a Southern gentleman and his slave, who cast off their blemished roots and prospered despite racial barriers. Enhanced by recollections from the family's archivist, eighty-four-year-old Edwina Harleston Whitlock — whose bloodline the author shares. The Sweet Hell Inside features a celebrated portrait artist whose subjects included industrialist Pierre du Pont; a black classical composer in the Lost Generation of 1920s Paris; and an orphanage founder who created the famous Jenkins Orphanage Band, a definitive force in the development of ragtime and jazz.
With evocative and engrossing storytelling, Edward Ball introduces a cast of historical characters rarely seen before: cultured, vain, imperfect, rich, and black — a family of eccentrics who defied social convention and flourished.
About the Author
Edward Ball was born in Georgia, raised in the South, and worked in New York as an art critic. His first book, Slaves in the Family, told the story of his search for the descendants of his ancestors' slaves. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife, Elizabeth.
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