Oral Tradition

Black History Month
Source: Private Collection

James Poyas, pictured here in a daguerrotype taken shortly before his death in 1850, was one of many Ball men to father children by slaves.

The black descendants of Ball slaves interviewed for the book also told very different stories. For example, Edwina Harleston Whitlock, a retiree living in Atlanta, told Ball about her great-grandmother Kate Wilson, once a slave on the Ball plantation of Elwood. Wilson was the common-law wife of Ball cousin William Harleston, with whom she had eight children between 1852 and his death in 1874. Harleston built a house for Kate and their children in Charleston, and willed that his property be divided between his white relatives and "my colored woman Kate, formerly my slave." Such public recognition of black wives and mistresses was the exception rather than the rule, however; family stories and documentary evidence uncovered for the book hinted at many more clandestine relationships.

Despite the enormous paper trail left by the family, oral tradition was all Ball had to go on for many chapters of his history — the lives of illiterate slaves of course left few marks on the written record. Fortunately, according to Ball, "there is a much more consistent oral tradition among black folks in the South than there is among white folks... black folks will talk about people who are long dead, of whom no records exists because they were slaves... but whose stories live on as life stories told by their descendants."

To commit this oral tradition to record, Ball interviewed descendants of Ball slaves in fifteen states. He knocked on literally hundreds of doors in the hopes of finding people not only who were genuinely related to Ball slaves, but who would also consent to talk to a white journalist claiming to be descended from a plantation family. Some rejected him completely; others welcomed him into their homes... sometimes even into their families. Carolyn Smalls Goodson, a Philadelphia woman descended from Ball cousin James Poyas and a field hand named Diana (slaves were generally not allowed last names), only half-jokingly calls him "Cousin Edward."

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