A welcome sequel, of sorts, to Ball’s well-received Slaves in the Family (1998).
In the former study, journalist Ball examined the interwoven histories of his South Carolinian family and the descendants of slaves his ancestors once held. Here, Ball focuses on one many-branched family, the Harlestons, founded in the 1840s in what was once termed an act of miscegenation between the white farmer William Harleston and a slave named Kate Wilson. Both parties suffered ostracism for the union, and their children were denied legal recognition and public schooling. Forever outsiders—Ball writes of photographs of them, “There is pride in the way they hold themselves, but in their eyes there is a gleam of insecurity, as though something about life isn’t right”—the Harleston children and their descendants went on to make distinguished careers, joining the lower ranks of the “colored aristocracy.” One became a mortician, founding a business confined, owing to 19th-century Jim Crow laws, to an African-American and mixed-race clientele. The mortician’s daughter married a minister who organized the orphans under his charge into musical groups; the minister earned a handsome living from the receipts, while some of the orphans, such as Freddie Green and Jabbo Smith, went on to play with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Count Basie. Other Harleston descendants and kin became writers, composers, and painters, making their mark in Harlem and Paris as well as Charleston. If any of them were ordinary, Ball doesn't say, though he takes care not to idealize. Throughout, he writes affectingly of their unusual hardships, as well as the difficulties of some descendants, even today, in claiming kinship across once sharply marked ethnic boundaries.
An illuminating chapter in the history of African-American family life, and in the American story generally.