Many of us have leaped down the genealogical rabbit hole as rainy-day detectives searching for clues to identify our forebears, only to be hampered by duplicate names, confusing archives, and contradictory family stories.
For author Edward Ball, an investigation into the Ball family history led to a National Book Award for his 1998 Slaves in the family, additional recognition for his current book, Life of a Klansman, along with his current position as Patrick Henry Fellow at Starr Center for the American Experience at Washington College where he is at work on his third title about other members of the Ball family.
The Ball family history harkens back to the rice plantations of 17th-century Charleston, South Carolina. Up to the Civil War, six generations of the Ball family enslaved more than 4,000 people on more than a dozen plantations.
After hearing much about his ancestors during Edward’s childhood, complete with visits with his father to the vestiges of some of the old family houses, the young writer began to look closer at his legacy and ask questions that would change the trajectory of his life: who were these individual humans that had been enslaved?
Determined to challenge the silence shrouding the topic in his family, Ball set off on an investigation that would send him into a three-year search through thousands of Ball family records across the country to archives and oral histories, and even to Africa.
Eschewing the idea of “guilt of the past,” Ball sought to demythologize the family’s self-identification as compassionate overseers, saying in a New York Times article by Drew Faust that “Rather than responsible, I felt accountable for what had happened, called on to try to explain it.”
Along with documenting the white slave-owning family, the centerpiece of that accounting became a search for descendants of the Ball family enslaved people. Often, living descendants were unaware of their lineage, while others added to the historical narrative from family oral traditions linking them to one of the Ball Plantations.
In his 2020 book Life of Klansman, Edward Ball explores the matrilineal side of his family and another great-great grandfather, Constant Lecorgne of New Orleans. Lecorgne, a Confederate discharged for misconduct, was the Klansman in the family and a primary resident evil during the white supremacy backlash to Reconstruction’s promise of rights to formerly enslaved people as Southern states moved into the Jim Crow era.
Ball says that a series of horrific murders—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Dylan Roof—compelled him to look at Lecorgne through the lens of contextual post-Civil War history to see if he could identify and confront the roots of white authority and privilege.
Ball sees ex-Confederate Lecorgne as part of the virulent strain of white supremacy that rose during the Reconstruction and still echoes sometimes loudly, sometimes as inaudible as a rattlesnake in repose, waking to bite us in your everyday lives. Readers will be hard-pressed to find a difference between the life of Klansman Constant Lecorgne and the white identity movements of today.
Katy Shenk at the Starr Center adds, “We’re delighted to have a writer of Edward’s stature here in residence, whose work speaks to contemporary concerns while chronicling the past. Already, he has embraced life in Chestertown to the fullest and is a valued member of the Starr Center and Washington College community.”
The Spy sat down with Edward Ball to talk about his extraordinary investigation into the Ball family, Constant Lecorgne, and what accounting for the past can mean for us today.
This video is approximately fourteen minutes in length. More about the Starr Center for the Study of the American experience may be found here.