Negro House at Sierra Leone, from an 18th Century engraving
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Edward Ball

Thinking about Priscilla…

I wish I could be with you to talk about Priscilla, the African girl taken from Sierra Leone in 1756 and sold in America to my family. She died a slave to my grandfather’s grandfather about 1820 at Comingtee plantation, near Charleston, South Carolina. Eight years ago, I was able to document Priscilla’s connection to the Martin family of present-day Charleston, who represent a handful of her hundreds of descendants. I’m glad my friend Joe Opala is now helping to complete that family’s journey. The story of how I linked Priscilla and the Martin family has several unlikely twists. In 1994, I began to research my book Slaves in the Family. Among the thousands once enslaved by my family in South Carolina, there was one man, P.H. Martin, who’d been born at a plantation called Limerick, north of Charleston. At the end of the Civil War, when he was twelve, P.H. Martin was freed along with 250 other people from Limerick.

In the 1920s, when P.H. Martin was in his seventies, he wrote several letters to my great-grandfather, Isaac Ball, who was one of his former masters. I had copies of these letters. I had begun to search for descendants of the people my family had enslaved, and on a gamble I telephoned the families named Martin in the two or three little South Carolina towns from which P.H. Martin had posted his letters seventy years earlier. In this way I found a woman named Learline Martin, who remembered the man she called “P.H.,” her grandfather; Learline Martin then introduced me to her cousin, Thomas Martin of Charleston, who she said was “most interested in our family’s history.”

I met Thomas Martin, a sixty-three-year-old retired assistant school principal, at his home, and we began spending afternoons together. I made many visits to Mr. Martin home over the next four years (he died in 1998). I met other family members, including his wife, his sister, his daughter Thomalind, and several cousins. For lack of a word, our “reunion” -- which brought together the descendant of a slave owner and descendants of his ancestors’ slaves -- was cathartic and gave us a rare feeling of closure.

It was in 1996, two years after first meeting the Martins, that I proved the connection between the family and their ancestor, the slave girl Priscilla. Luckily, dozens of slave lists had survived, and these records made by my family allowed me to build genealogies of people in slavery. (The slave lists are in various libraries in North and South Carolina.) After many hours poring over these birth and death and family group records, I was able to construct a family tree for the Martins that reached back to the 1750s and to an enslaved girl named Priscilla.

In a Charleston library, I found two other sources that showed how, when, and on what ship Priscilla had come to America. In a ledger bound in pigskin, there was a single sentence noting that on June 30, 1756, Elias Ball II had bought several children, including a ten-year-old he named Priscilla. The other source was an account book belonging to Henry Laurens, a slave trader and Elias Ball’s brother-in-law. Laurens said that on June 30, 1756 he’d sold five children to Elias Ball; they’d come off of a ship called the Hare, which had arrived from Sierra Leone. These two ledgers as well as the slave lists were unpublished, but they weren’t in somebody’s attic; they were in libraries. Anyway, that’s how I made the paper trail from the Martin family back to Priscilla and Sierra Leone. I shared the research with the family in 1997, and they found it very moving. I included their story in my book, with the various citations.

One thing I didn’t know at the time was that records of the slave ship Hare had been published. Joe Opala encountered them in his reading, and the citation pointed to the originals of those records, in the New-York Historical Society. Joe’s good eye has added detail to the story of Priscilla life. And when he and Thomalind Martin go to Sierra Leone, the family will have a deeper taste of closure. For the Martins and the rest of us, it’s been a long time coming.