Local News

Descendants of Slavery Seek Reconciliation, Find Friendship

Posted May 9, 1999

— Racial reconciliation can be delicate and sometimes painful, but attempts to heal the pain of the past are still being made.

The charm ofCharlestoncan be stunning, but its past can be equally overwhelming.

Today, sailboats and frieghters share South Carolina's Copper River, but hundreds of years ago, the same tides ferried a different cargo.

"Our family enslaved close to 4,000 people. People got up at dawn, worked in the rice fields and didn't knock off until 3:00 or 4:00. This went on six days a week. Of course they were not compensated. All the fruit of their labor was taken away from them. There was a lot of pain," said Edward Ball.

For 170 years, Ball's family owned 25 rice plantations in South Carolina's low country including Middleburg.

Built in 1699, the old plantation house has not changed much, but the Ball family attitude has.

"What we bequeathed to the country was a broken society, and we had to come to terms with that. I had to mess with the family history," said Ball.

His messing with the family history led to a best-seller, "Slaves in the Family." He researched and wrote with a purpose.

"To extend the hand of reconciliation to black people from our family to the families of black people," explained Ball.

Ball spent years talking with skeptical, sometimes hostile descendants of slaves. He gained trust by sharing information that families did not know about their relatives.

"Their work assignments. One tried to run away. The fact that a great great grandmother was bought as a 10-year-old girl," said Ball.

Through his extensive research atDukeandUNC, he found there were at least 75,000 living Americans who were descendants of Ball family slaves. He knew the business was big but not that big.

"It took my breath away. It made me feel like it was an important story to tell. These were people who lived in anonymity without a voice. They were deprived of an education. They had left traces on history. In general, their memory had been washed away," said Ball.

One of the descendants is Sonya Fordham who spent some of her college days in North Carolina. She is now a teacher, social worker, mother of a beauty queen and never embarrassed about her slave past.

"We have been victorious, because we are free. The freedom was not something that was given to us. It was something we won," said Fordham.

There are stories in the book on how that freedom was won. At Middleburg, there are reminders like the huge rice fields and remnants of the mill.

One brick and wood building was the commissary. Built in the late 1700s, it was used to house food for the slave families.

And if the records of this plantation are correct, two rooms had a unique use. They made up the plantation jail where defiant salves were brought as well as newcomers who simply needed to be broken.

"Usually on a Saturday night. The worst punishment was to be thrown in on a Saturday night. Not exactly due process," said Ball.

"God was with us during our darkest days," said Fordham.

Two descendants, one of slaves and the other of slave owners. Both have sought reconciliation, and both say they have begun to find it. They consider each other a friend.

The book brought them together, and together they have begun to heal. Fordham challenges others to read "Slaves in the Family" and learn as she did.

"We were slaves not only in the fact these people kept us chained, but even in our enslavement, we did not lose our mental state. We were never really slaves. We were just captive people. It's not a depressing story to me," said Fordham.

Both Ball and Fordham told similar stories that had been passed down through both their families about the freeing of the slaves at Middleburg.

Ball and Fordham quoted one of the soldiers who came in to free the slaves as saying they were "free as a bird." Photographer Ed Wilson, an African American, took these pictures. It was difficult for him to visit the plantation and listen to some of the stories of brutality.

Ed, you are to be commended.


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