Descendant of Slaveholders Talks About Slavery’s Enduring Resonance in Light of Black Men Being Killed by Police

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by Edward Ball

Last week, a milestone passed for my family in South Carolina — the 150th anniversary of the last day of slavery. We were the slaveholders.

At the start of March 1865, a company of black Union soldiers from the 35th United States Colored Troops regiment rode up the oak allée of Limerick, one my family’s rice plantations north of Charleston, where 250 of our slaves lived and worked. At the head of the column was a white colonel named James Beecher, a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

It was a Sunday, and the family of William Ball, my great-great-grandfather, sat in the dining room, reading from the book of Lamentations. With the Civil War rushing to its end, they must have found it an apt choice: The passage recounted the miserable fate of Jerusalem condemned by God for its sins: “She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces … she weepeth sore in the night … for the Lord hath afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions.”

That morning, the Ball women had put on two dresses, afraid that they might be raped, as the papers had told them to expect from black Yankees, just like the ones now approaching the house.

Behind the big house at Limerick, on the slave street, the mood was high and restless. Everyone knew the hour had finally arrived. Turning from the lawn of the mansion, the black company headed soundlessly to the barn, where soldiers pulled down the bell that had been used to call field hands to work, six dawns a week for a century, and smashed it to pieces.

William Ball opened his front door to admit Colonel Beecher. The white officer and abolitionist had one demand: “I want to see all the people on this place, now, in front of the house.” The black village gathered — field hands, cooks, boatmen, hostlers, nurses, carpenters, mothers, seamstresses, children, old people — and Beecher yelled, “You are free as birds, you don’t have to work for these people anymore!”

Many in the black village, according to a diary, danced and sang, while others fell to their knees and prayed. That night the scene gradually turned to one of drunkenness and music. The food stores were emptied, the china was smashed and a tent city went up on the lawn for the invaders — or liberators.

Early 1865 was the season when millions were freed from slavery, as Yankee armies crisscrossed the Deep South and unlocked the gates of a thousand plantations. I imagine these scenes were similar to ones at the end of World War II in Europe, when American and Soviet armies arrived at the gates of the German camps in Central and Eastern Europe. In popular memory — in white memory — the plantations of the antebellum South were like a necklace of country clubs strewn across the land. In reality, they were a chain of work camps in which four million were imprisoned. Their inhabitants, slaves, were very much survivors, in the Holocaust sense of that word.

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SOURCE: The New York Times

Edward Ball is the author of “Slaves in the Family” and, most recently, “The Inventor and the Tycoon.”

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