A Conversation with Edward Ball
On June 29, 2001, Edward Ball and Sonya Fordham, one of the descendants of slaves featured in SLAVES IN THE FAMILY, sat down to discuss their meeting, their families, the book, and the enduring legacy of slavery.
Sonya Fordham: How many families are there in the United States like yours--the descendants of slave owners?
Edward Ball: Well, at the start of the Civil War there were about 375,000 slave owners on record in the federal census. These were heads of households, each household probably numbering between five and eight people. So individuals in families that owned slaves at the beginning of the Civil War numbered approximately 1 3 /4 million people. The descendants of those families, I'm estimating here, may number as many as ten million Americans today. And most of us know who we are, because if your family was once powerful and had money and controlled workers, then you are not allowed to forget it. Families tell these stories to their children so most descendants of slave owners know who they are, although not a lot of them talk about it openly.
SF: Now how many families are there like mine--descendants of slaves--would you think?
EB: At the end of the Civil War, approximately four million African-Americans were freed by the emancipation, and today, the census has on record approximately thirty-six African-Americans. Most of them are descendants of those who were enslaved at the time of the Civil War. Of course, there are a lot of African-Americans who are descended from people who were not in slavery, who are descended from both white and black ancestors--the great-grand-children of slave owners who had offspring with women in slavery. But my guess is about thirty-six million Americans.
SF: Why did you first contact my family?
EB: I first contacted your family in early 1994 because your mother had written me a letter saying "We've heard about what you're trying to do, find descendants of the Ball families slaves, and our family came from Limerick Plantation. Would you like to come meet us?" I thought that was a very brave thing for your mother to do. I was nervous but I remember calling and asking when would be a good time to visit. As you know, I was trying to come to terms with what my family had done, having enslaved thousands of people. And part of the process was contacting families like yours.
SF: What did you expect would happen when you met our family?
EB: Well, I expected you were going to hold me over the fire.
SF: Which we did.
EB: Which you did. You remember, I came into the house and there were about twenty people in your living room.
SF: Well, there weren't quite that many there--it just seemed like twenty.
EB: Your grandmother, Emily Frayer, who was the matriarch, was there. She was ninety-three at the time. Your mother, Mrs. Frayer's daughter, was there. Now were any of your mother's siblings there?
EB: Okay. There were your mother's children, and their grandchildren . . .
SF: . . . and that's it.
EB: That's it.
SF: And my stepfather.
EB: Everybody was sitting in sofas and chairs in a circle surrounding the dining room table looking at me sitting with your grandmother, the elderly woman, and I was just waiting for someone to get up and start shouting.
SF: Well, my grandmother--I think her reaction was, "What took you so long?" You remember her making that statement as if she always knew there would be a connection. And I guess it was because she was born on Ball family land, Hyde Park, and she knew some of the older Ball women when she was a small child. She was named for Miss Marie.
EB: Miss Marie Ball.
SF: So I guess she was always looking for some continuation.
EB: She was a wise woman.
SF: Yes she was. Did anything surprise you about us?
EB: What surprised me was how much your family knew about the years before the Civil War, how many stories your family carried, and how many personalities there were in the family stories. You have a whole cast of characters, all of which are dead now, but the whole cast still lives in the family lore.
SF: They do.
EB: That surprised me, because many African-American families intentionally forgot the past. Your family held on to the worst and the best that happened.
SF: Yes, we did and we do. Now, how did your family react to your writing this book?
EB: Many in the family were frightened by it. There are probably 125 members of the Ball family in the city of Charleston, and most of them are middle-class and upper middle-class people. They were frightened by what I was trying to do, which was to tell stories of African-American families alongside, and with the same importance as, our own family story. People thought that we were going to be attacked by the media, and that I was in some way damaging the family. When the book was published and people read it, it divided us into factions. I think it caused a lot of arguments between fathers and sons, between husbands and wives, a lot of kitchen table disagreements. The women in the family were more able to understand what I was trying to do, the men were more likely to be frightened by it and to be angry at me. The older people in the family, people over, let's say, sixty years old--were unable to accept what I had done, while the younger people in the family, people under thirty-five years old, understood it. They took me aside and told me this was good thing. Middle-aged people sat on the fence. They were nervous and they were interested, but generally frightened. So it was very divisive in our family. It was very painful--and I think it wounded us.
SF: Having grown up in Charleston as I did, white people always ignored the fact that we even existed. I was raised as a Southerner, and I'm a black woman. I was raised as a young black woman who would one day be a part of this community. And we were always taught to be courteous--and a part of being courteous in Charleston is that you greet people. That's number one, you can't get away from that. You were always supposed to say Good morning or Good evening and white folks never said that to us. Never greeted us. We were always just . . . invisible. Not even on the fringe, but invisible.
EB: The Invisible Man . . .
SF: The Invisible Man, the Invisible Woman, the Invisible Child. So when you wrote your book, you mentioned that black people really were in this community, and that threw white folks. When I was younger, I spent time as a page in the South Carolina state legislature, and that also was a situation when I walked in, no one greeted me. I was again invisible. I was only visible to do the task that they asked me to do. And people asked me to do a task without looking at me. So I was always supposed to have this feeling of not being there.
But having gone through a civil rights movement, I felt the same way that your community did--that the white community was a power that I knew I had to reckon with, but they would never impact me negatively, in terms of destroying my self-regard. That knowledge built me up. That's what I got from the movement.
EB: What did you learn about slavery in school?
SF: Very little. It was as if it didn't happen. It really wasn't taught, it wasn't stressed. Somewhere in my consciousness I remember someone mentioning that slavery happened, but that's about it. I read Harriet Jacobs's book when I was in high school and I loved it.
EB: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl?
SF: Yes, that was it, and I loved it. I really loved the story. At South Carolina State College, where I went to college and where the enrollment was 100 percent black, we did not have a black history class until we fought for one. They finally gave us a class in January of 1968.
EB: Did you learn more about slavery from your own family than you did from teachers?
SF: Oh, yes. My family talked about slavery every Saturday. It was our Saturday thing.
EB: Why Saturday?
SF: My granddaddy used to come to Charleston from Cordesville, a little town outside of Charleston, on Saturday mornings, and he would take one of the children, or all the grandchildren, to the market. The market, when I was small, was still the place where black people went on Saturday to buy vegetables and to just meet. My mother would always prepare biscuits for my granddaddy, and when my grandmother was there they would talk about slavery. They would talk about the people in the family--the dead people. My great-grandmother, Emily Adams Bryant, raised me with plantation stories. Our old family home in the country is directly across from Kensington plantation, the old Ball family place. So as small children we walked on Kensington property to visit relatives who still lived there. She and my grandmother, Emily Frayer, talked about people who had passed--including Pa, who was a slave, Philip Lucas was his given name. They talked about Pa's father having been sold down river and how it saddened Pa. Although he was sold down river to another family, Pa's father would come back by boat to Kensington--no, not Kensington, it had to be Limerick, because that's where Pa lived, as a slave. Philip Lucas, Sr. would come and see his child, and that was very touching to me. Also, they always talked about the freedom, the coming of General Sherman from up north and what Sherman meant. As a little girl, I always thought that it was actually Sherman himself that came, but it was actually a company of his troops. My grandmother and my great-grandmother always said that when the soldiers arrived, they took the head scarves off the women and they told them, "You're free, free as a bird, and you can move anywhere you want to now." So people started leaving the plantation.
EB: So all this was normal conversation over biscuits and rice?
SF: Normal conversation, as we ate and talked, as we walked. As we walked in the country, my grandmother pointed out to me where slaves had been buried on Kensington in unmarked graves. She wanted me to know, because Philip Lucas, who was the patriarch of the family, always told the family to tell the children what happened, to not let the children forget what slavery was. He served in the Civil War because when the Union soldiers finally came, he joined the Union forces. His uniform was there in the house. I didn't see it, though, because it burned with the house in the early 1900s. He was able with his Union army pension check to buy the land that we still hold in the family. I heard a lot of stories.
Ed, suppose a person says to you, "My family didn't own slaves. We're not responsible for slavery" or "We came to America after the Civil War, and we were poor immigrants who suffered prejudice just like black people." How would you answer that person?
EB: I would say, yes, many millions of white Americans came here poor, tired, homeless, yearning to breathe free. In fact, 40 percent of white Americans come from families that entered the United States at Ellis Island, and they were rejected peasants, poor Irish, Italians, Germans, or Jews that had fled from Russian pogroms. They did suffer and their suffering should be commemorated. But when those families set foot on Ellis Island, they entered a two-tier society that had already been established before they arrived, with white people on the upper tier and black people on the lower tier. They got better education, they got better housing, and they got better jobs before native-born black Americans. So they were soon lifted up into the middle class, while African-Americans remained destitute. They benefited, in other words, from the legacy of slavery which had created a lopsided society. And their descendants still benefit from it indirectly. I would respect the stories of family suffering, but point out that the inheritance of slavery is one that we all share.
SF: Could I answer that question too?
EB: Yes, I would like you to answer that--suppose somebody said, "My family didn't own slaves, we're not responsible for slavery, Sonya." How would you answer?
SF: I would say that my family has been around since 1740, when our first ancestor stepped off the boat from Africa, as your research showed. We first came into this country enslaved, but as human beings. For about 125 years we were considered chattel. The same Constitution that we fought for after 1865 considered us chattel and developed this system of racism that we now live under. We look around and see the great farms that we built, the roads that we built, the churches that we built. Everything in this community, in Charleston, was built by us, and all that time we were not even considered human beings. It was only in 1865, after the great war that we became citizens. But before that we still fought for America. African-American men everywhere fought wars for this country even prior to 1865. In 1965, with the Voting Rights Act, we were finally able, after all that time, to vote as Americans.
EB: Let's go back to that first meeting that you and I had in early 1994. When we first met, was there anything that surprised you about us, meaning the Ball family, or me when I came to visit you? What were you expecting when I came to visit you that day?
SF: A white person had never really been in our house socially, and we were guarded, very guarded. We did not expect that we would be developing a relationship with you over time. We just wanted to know what it was that you wanted, because I did know the name Ball. I was taught as a teenager that the Ball family had owned us, my people. The name Ball did come up. So I just wanted to see what you wanted. That's as far as I went with it.
Okay, Ed, here's another question for you: Did the Civil Rights movement succeed? People say the Civil Rights movement succeeded and now there are laws that guarantee equal rights and prohibit discrimination. How would you respond to that statement?
EB: Yes, there are laws that highlight racism and here's an example of how those laws help us. When I was a child, it was common among children to use the word nigger. My friends and I used the word nigger, not thinking twice about it. Now racist speech is no longer invisible. In private companies, it's even actionable--an employee who is coping with a hostile work environment, a racist work environment, can bring a suit in a court of law against the offending parties. This shift of consciousness came out of the Civil Rights movement.
Yet, from another perspective, the movement failed. we have a kind of psychological apartheid that goes much deeper than the legal apartheid of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights movement undid this system of legal separation and legal discrimination, but we have a psychological apartheid that separates white folks from black folks. In my view, this psychological separation is going to be a lot more difficult to dismantle than the legal system of apartheid that the civil rights movement began to take apart.
But what about you? Say the Civil Rights movement succeeded. Why are you still complaining?
SF: Well, I'm complaining because other folks--I guess your people, white people--believe the Civil Rights movement succeeded. It did succeed in that we put the issues forward. A lot of folks died because we put the issues forward. And as you are speaking I agree with everything you said, but I am subject to institutionalized racism. We're dealing now with racial profiling, with segregated housing, with segregated public schools, with public schools that are integrated but still segregated because the housing patterns are the same. We have the same type of job situation for black people in this community where we now sit. There are either few jobs, or the jobs pay only minimum wage for us, or we're under employed or we're unemployed. In vast numbers we lack health insurance. The movement was left unfinished.
I wanted to react to what you said about the word nigger. That's a word that is still heard in the South Carolina Legislature. A lot of the legislators still say nig-ra. They can't even say Negro. I've heard them say that in my presence, and it was accepted. Now we say black, and black, people feel, is a word of viciousness.
Edward, what is your opinion of the idea of reparations for slavery?
EB: Well, black people and white people are far apart on this issue of reparations. I think in a lot of black families it's common kitchen table discussion and, as you know, in the black media the issue of reparations gets frequent and serious discussion. But in white society I rarely meet a white person who does not roll their eyes hearing the word reparations. It's thought to be some kind of alien concept, frightening if not even laughable. So white people and black people are very far apart on this and I don't think there's any middle ground right now. I think, however, that we as white folks should ask ourselves, "Why are black people talking about reparations?" We should give black folks the respect of an audience and try to understand why this issue is so important in black society. I think in the long run payments of money by the federal government to individual black families connected to the legacy of slavery will probably never occur. But I think we need a conversation about this question that all of us take seriously.
SF: Now let me respond as a black person. There's no question that my people came from across the ocean--your book documented that, and I knew it before you came along. We came from Africa. I think my part of it is we see the Japanese have gotten their money. We see the German Jews have gotten their money. We see the Indians have gotten land. Black people were brutalized by slavery, and we were brutalized by the lynchings that followed when the Union soldiers pulled out, with the knowledge that they were going to leave us with the people who had enslaved us. Hayes-Tilden happened in 1877, and the lynchings continued until the late 1950s. Then we started the civil rights movement in the 1960s. I think that the first thing that has to happen, before anything can happen in America to benefit us, is that the white Americans have to understand that we were always, and still are, human beings. When you brutalized human people, when you considered in the Constitution that black people were 3 /5 of a person, that a whole society developed and made money off of us, you have our perspective. You have to understand that it was against the law for us even to have a book in our hands, let alone be able to read it. Yes, we need money. Give us money. Give us money so that we can put it back in our schools and hire our people to teach us. No, it probably never will happen, because it takes a big heart to say you were wrong, and America's not there yet.
EB: When you were a girl, did your grandmother, Emily Frayer, talk about life on the Plantations before the Civil War? She was born in 1901, but her parents were enslaved on Ball family plantations. Did she talk about their lives before the Civil War?
SF: My grandmother was told stories by her mother, Ellen, who was born in 1880, and by her grandfather Philip Lucas, who was born a slave. He was my grandmother's grandfather. Her grandmother, Philip's wife, Elsie Lucas, also told my grandmother stories. There was one story, the story of Pa's father being sold down river--Pa was Philip Lucas, but we always referred him as Pa.
The story of his daughter, Elsie's sister Rachel, who was beaten by a Ball on the Plantation, came down to us. That's one of the stories that we told you. Rachel was a slave on the Plantation and by that time we'd been slaves on the Plantation for over 100 years. One day Rachel, as the story goes, decided she didn't feel like working for the overseers. She was not going to work. (And I can identify with that story because that's feelings that I've had, that my grandmother's had.) She said she wasn't going to do nothing that day. She was just gonna chill. So the overseer was going to beat her, and he was going to really beat her. The Ball--Master Ball, was how they referred to him on Limerick Plantation--decided he could not allow the overseer to beat Rachel because he probably would kill her. After all, Rachel was property, and of value--not to the overseer, but of value to the master. So Master Ball beat her instead. I think about that story often because that sort of typifies how we are.
I don't think my people ever truly felt we were going to be totally slaves mentally, we always felt we were just human beings who were just going to put up with these people until freedom came.
EB: Can you describe what enslavement did to African-Americans?
SF: Wow, that's a big one.
EB: In the effects that persist today, both positive and negative. One positive effect, one negative effect.
SF: One positive effect is a total belief in the power of God and the power of prayer, because prayer did keep us going, man did not. God allowed us to continue to believe in ourselves, and to continue to believe that we would be free. So we were able to move through slavery and maintain our dignity like the Phoenix--they always said that within black people there is the idea of keep rising. The negative effect of slavery is the constant feeling that you are a victim. You lose your sense of empowerment, and when you lose your sense of empowerment you leave yourself open to being a thug, to being out of control completely, because you always feel that someone else is in charge. And that, to me, has caused a lot of helplessness--in the education field we call it learned helplessness.
EB: I'm going to ask myself a question. What did enslavement do to white people? I think slavery gave to white Americans who had nothing to do with it, as well as to people who are connected to it, the sense that we are entitled to things, to positions of power and positions of authority, to material things, to respect from strangers. We grow up feeling, "Well, all this could be ours." And moreover, when we hear news that a black person has committed a crime or has quite school, we think, "Well, that's the way things are. That's natural."
SF: It is.
EB: Slavery gave us and gives us a feeling of proprietary control over our lives, the notion that I could have the best education I want if I worked hard, and I could have the best place to live if I worked hard, and these things are rightfully mine. That's what I think slavery gave to white people.
SF: I do agree. I think that with black people, this sense of being out of control is perpetuated by the media. We have a situation every year where the TV media refuse to produce any shows that have black people in a dramatic role. We're always just funny. We're still in the Stepin' Fetchit role. We're still comedians. But what are we always so happy about? I mean, there's racial profiling, they're killing our children, we don't have jobs, we lack health care, but we're still funny. I don't understand. The media has a feeding frenzy whenever black folks kill one another, or when black people get killed by white folks, policemen in particular. There's nothing ever wrong with it, it's always "justifiable homicide."
Okay, Edward, this is a biggie. Do you believe in affirmative action?
EB: I believe in means-tested affirmative action. Here's what that means: everybody knows that slavery ended in 1865. Most white Americans don't understand that the next one hundred years perpetuated many of the cruelest aspects of the slave period. Until 1965, there was a legal system of separation, apartheid and discrimination, legally enforced by many state governments in the South.
SF: Plessy vs. Ferguson.
EB: Only since the mid-1960s has there been any attempt by the federal government to extend the equal rights of citizenship to black people. I think that affirmative action is a useful way of trying to level the lopsided society that still vexes all of us. But I think it should be means tested. African-American families who have an income that makes it difficult for them to afford higher education should be first in line when it comes to getting into colleges, but middle-class African-Americans should not be able get the same preferences, because in important ways middle-class African-American families have managed to vanquish apartheid. Affirmative action is a blunt and imperfect answer to the legacy of enslavement, but it's the best instrument that we have and I believe in it.
SF: Now, see, I didn't even know affirmative action was still going on. I've been in South Carolina so long I thought affirmative action was dead before it started. Because this is the South here. Charleston is the real South. It's antebellum, which means Charleston remains the way it was before the war in 1865, the only war we talk about. We believe in and we maintain this time period for the tourist industry. Black people are maintained in the conditions prior to the Civil War. The only thing is, we don't have to have a pass to move freely. We don't need a pass, because we are uniformed. Most of the black people you see downtown, where whites and blacks come into contact--except the educators--wear uniforms. They work at Kentucky Fried Chicken, at Hardee's, these places. Their uniforms are their passes.
The schools that we come out of are in very bad shape. For some reason money is unavailable. So when you look at affirmative action, if you are kept from having the things that by right are yours, for example, adequate public schools, then you'll never be able to go forward regardless of affirmative action. Education is a key, and we're kept from it.
Are there parallels, Ed, between the experience with slavery in America and the experience of the Jews in Germany?
EB: Slavery is the defining event of American history, the Holocaust is the central event of European life. A conservative estimate is that eleven million West Africans were taken from the African continent during the slave trade and brought to the Western Hemisphere, and nine million of them arrived alive in North and South America. That means two million died enroute, suffocating and starving below deck, or dying of dysentery, chained and writhing in their own feces. Of those nine million, approximately 500,000 were brought to the territory of the United States, while the rest went to the Caribbean, to Brazil, to Mexico, and elsewhere. The Holocaust consumed approximately six million European Jews. Of course, there's a difference between the theft and forced labor of nine million people and the intentional murder of six million Jews. Yet the two events summarize our lives as Americans or Europeans. I think that it's acceptable to use the word holocaust to describe what happened to Africans in America, with a small h, and continue to write Holocaust with a capital H to describe what happened to the Jews in Europe. The parallels are many. The plantations in the minds of many white Americans were like a necklace of country clubs across the South--soft places of luxury and comfort. But the reality is they were work camps. They were forced labor camps very much like the gulags of Russia and like the labor camps of Nazi Germany, where people were compelled to work sometimes until death. The Nazis not only killed Jews with gas and bullets, but compelled perhaps one million to work as slave laborers in the armaments industry, on a starvation diet. So yes, there are parallels.
SF: Do you see better things between white people and nonwhites in the future?
EB: I'm guardedly optimistic, yes. It seems that every time there's a call for greater equality, it meets a certain fear and resistance from some segment of the population. But five years pass, ten years pass, and we see a different reality accepted by the very people who had previously opposed it. For example, a U.S. senator from this state, Strom Thurmond, began his political life in the 1940s as a militant pro-segregation politician, and then publicly, after so many years, he had to proclaim the equality of white people and black people, and even take steps to defend it.
I think things are moving in the right direction, but we have psychological apartheid between whites and blacks. Many whites feel loathing and fear of blacks, sometimes so masked they aren't even aware of it. Some blacks feel the same for whites, and this deep aversion will be almost impossible to cure.
SF: I agree with you. I'm guardedly optimistic, too. I think that from my vantage point I've seen the changes. I grew up during segregation. I had to drink water out of the colored water fountain. We had to travel and use the colored bathrooms or no bathrooms, because you couldn't go to the white one. We grew up in the public schools in Charleston, segregated. What we're doing right now, just sitting together, was unheard of during my earlier life. All of these things came about because, number one, black people fought, but number two, there are white people, as there have always been, who secretly give aid to black people. And I think as we move forward, those people who want to be of good conscience will have to be more assertive about saying that this is normal. It is the norm that people should mingle together. We're all human beings and we're all entitled to the same things. I am truly an American because my people have fought in every war--World War I, World War II, the Spanish American war. Every one, we fought in. But I also believe in all of the platitudes. I believe in "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty." That's the only thing that keeps me going, because I feel that as a black person I must be at the table when it comes time to decide America's future. We must move America toward the greatness that all the constitutional language suggests should be our position in life, or our position as a world power.