NGS annual conference in Charleston, South Carolina, an amazing experience awaits. Not only is Charleston one of the most beautiful cities on the East Coast, but the history that permeates your surroundings is a venerable feast of delights. With this year being the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, Charleston serves as the perfect place to reflect on the atmosphere and historic conditions that lead to the "Civil War", "War between the States", or "War of Northern Aggression" - whatever your preference. However you choose to romanticize or dissect this chapter in our history, it is always important to take all viewpoints into consideration in order to gain a complete understanding of our culture during that time. Since we will be in the city where the first shots rang out, I suggest reading Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. An older book published in 1998, this is still a wonderful, and highly enjoyable read when looking to experience this unique culture. Also, for those of you conducting African American research in the area, chapter 16 has a couple of paragraphs devoted solely to the surnames adopted by the former slaves from the Ball plantations.
As a direct descendant of the Ball family, Edward Ball explores how his family made its fortune along the Cooper River, just outside Charleston, beginning as early as 1698. Their story is not exactly a typical one. They did not make their fortune through cotton, but relied on rice as their crop of choice. However, their reliance upon slave labor was very high, and quite prolific as some of the family dealt directly in the international slave trade. His thorough account runs chronologically, from the 17th to the 20th centuries, with some flash fowards to the present day descendant branches.
The unique depth of this book cannot be overlooked. The story told here is not just family legend and oral history. The documentation that survives from this family is very extensive and provided the foundation for Ball's chronological accounts. To supplement the family history he inherited, and the documentation already on record, Ball then explored the African families that were entwined with the Balls. He found that the heritage he inherited was also ingrained in the lives of current African American families whose ancestors had been enslaved by the Balls. In several cases, the relationships transcended the former slave/owner connection. Not only did the former slaves sometimes remain socially connected via business, etc, but in some cases, the families were related by blood, which was the impetus for the title. By talking to the modern day descendants, Ball uncovered a rich tapestry that serves to increase any complex view we may have had about how slavery affected families and communities.
My only caveat with this account is the lack of slavery era African viewpoints. This is the story of slavery written by the white descendant of a white slave owning family. He does an amazing job of not withholding the good or the bad. You will encounter moments that seemingly display affectionate ties between the slaves and their owners, but in the next chapter, you might encounter the cruelty and apparent lack of any human sympathy. It is truly fascinating to read about the early years of the slave owning dynasty, and how it developed into this affluent, yet self absorbed group of people that lived in luxury while enslaving and abusing their fellow humans. Despite this book's valuable insight from a particular historical standpoint, for a more complete view of this period of Charleston's history, you might want to add a couple of slave narratives to your beach bag.
P.S. I picked up my copy at Maia's Books' booth while in Knoxville at the FGS Conference. They are slated to have a large booth at the NGS - along with slave narratives - so head there first for a great selection of beach reading material!
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