For many African Americans genealogical research is difficult. Even if they have good information on family members names and where they lived, it is likely that the legacy of slavery will halt their research. Most slaveholders did not keep detailed records of their slaves. Even if they did, the information they maintained would not be enough to facilitate thorough genealogical research. The Ball family of South Carolina was unique in that for generations of slaveholding, they kept intricate details on the slaves they held in bondage.
Edward Ball grew up hearing stories of his family’s history of being a part of the plantation elite and of their slaves. In his work Slaves in the Family, Ball details his journey to discovering the descendants of the slaves that his family owned. He does an excellent job of detailing his own family’s history, from the arrival of the first Ball in the colonies to the end of their slaveholding past following the end of the Civil War.
More impressive is his ability to thoroughly research the documents left by his ancestors, engage in difficult conversations with his own family members who have chosen to forget or ignore the family history, and his ability to track down many descendants of the Ball family slaves. While, he was able to track down quite a few descendants, he spent a lot of time discussing his own family history, leaving that part of the story feeling unfinished.
Despite this shortfall, Ball inspires a desire to connect with one’s past. His methodology, while aided by the fact that the Balls kept such detailed records, gives the reader the feeling that they, too, could research their family with success. Furthermore, he provokes a strong consideration for the legacy of the intimate relationship between slave and master. While many believers of the Lost Cause narrative would rejoice at the discovery that some slaves were in fact loyal to their masters, Ball shows that this was only sometimes the case.
Ball’s work is unique in that it was difficult to find another work that detailed the relationship between slave masters and their slaves. However, it could be compared to Annette Gordeon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings and fathered her children. The scandal of this relationship was similar to the part of the conversation that some of Edward Ball’s relatives did not want to address.
Slaves in the Family provides something that many African American’s will never have. A connection to their past. While his ability to trace these histories is incredible, for most African Americans, they will never know who their ancestors were beyond a few generations. Despite this, Ball’s work is an important addition to the understanding of America’s history of bondage and oppression.
Ball, Edward. Slaves in the Family. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.