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Charles Ball
Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, a Black Man, Who Lived Forty Years in Maryland, South Carolina and Georgia, as a Slave Under Various Masters, and was One Year in the Navy with Commodore Barney, During the Late War
New York: Published by John S. Taylor, 1837.


Charles Ball was born on a tobacco plantation in Calvert County, Maryland. The exact date of his birth is not certain, but most scholars agree that it was some time in 1781. When he was four, his mother and siblings were sold to another plantation and Ball never saw them again. Ball remained in Maryland and married Judah, a slave on a neighboring plantation, but they were separated when he was sold to a slave trader from Georgia. Ball was bound with 51 other slaves in neck irons, handcuffs and chains and forced to walk for over a month from Maryland to Columbia, South Carolina. There, he was sold to a cotton plantation owner, and later worked for the owner's youngest daughter in Georgia. When his owner died in 1809, Ball found himself at the mercy of the owner's sons, whose cruelty was unbearable. That year he escaped from slavery and during the span of a year walked from Georgia to Maryland.

In Maryland, he returned to his wife and children, and at the advice of his wife's owners he hired himself out for wages. Although Ball was a fugitive slave, he escaped notice for a long time and managed to save enough money to buy a farm near Baltimore. Ball's first wife died in 1816 and two years later he married again. His life as a self- proclaimed freedman, however, was precarious, and in 1830 he was captured and returned to slavery. He escaped again, hiding on a ship to Philadelphia and then returning to Baltimore. In his absence, his wife and children, who were legally freed slaves, had been sold into slavery. After learning of his family's fate, Ball returned to Pennsylvania to minimize the chance of being recaptured.

Ball's Slavery in the United States: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Charles Ball was published in 1836 and written with the help of Isaac Fischer. Fischer declares in his preface that he has edited the oral narrative Ball had dictated to him to omit any beliefs or feelings Ball may have expressed about slavery. This declaration of presumably significant editing has led scholars to debate the authenticity of Ball's narrative, but most agree that the narrative represents a true story. The popularity of Ball's story is well-documented. Slave narrative scholar William Andrews notes: "Ball's narrative was reprinted often in the decades following its initial publication; it directly influenced the manner and matter of later fugitive slave narratives." Fifty Years In Chains; or, The Life of an American Slave, (1859) was an abridged and unauthorized reprinted of the earlier Slavery in the United States. In the narratives, Ball describes his experiences as a slave, including the uncertainty of slave life and the ways in which the slaves are forced to suffer harsh and inhumane conditions. In particular, he recounts the qualities of his various masters, and the ways in which his fortune depended on their temperament.

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1986; Garraty, John A. and Mark C. Carnes, eds., American National Biography, vol. 2, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999; Ripley, C. Peter, et al., eds., The Black Abolitionist Papers, Vol. III: The United States, 1830-1846, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Harris Henderson

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