Cover image for The sweet hell inside : a family history
The sweet hell inside : a family history
1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : William Morrow, c2001.
Physical Description:
xv, 384 p., [32] p. of plates : illustrations.
Personal Subject:


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 920 BAL 1 1
Book 975.7915 BAL 1 1

On Order



With the panoramic story of one "colored elite" family who rises from the ashes of the Civil War to create an American cultural dynasty Edward Ball offers the historical and, literary successor to his highly acclaimed Slaves in the Family, a New York Times bestseller and winner of the 1998 National Book Award.

The Sweet Hell Inside recounts the lives of the Harleston family of South Carolina, the progeny of a Southern gentleman and his slave who cast off their blemished roots and achieved affluence in part through a surprisingly successful funeral parlor business. Their wealth afforded the Harlestons the comfort of chauffeurs, tailored clothes, and servants whose skin was darker than theirs. It also launched the family into a generation of glory as painters, performers, and photographers in the "high yellow" society of America's colored upper class. The Harlestons' remarkable one-hundred-year journey spans the waning days of Reconstruction, the precious art world of the early 1900s, the back alleys of the Jazz Age, and the dawn of the civil rights movement.

Enhanced by the recollections of the family's archivist, eighty-four-year-old Edwina Harleston Whitlock -- whose bloodline the author sharesThe Sweet Hell Inside features a portrait artist whose subjects included industrialist Pierre Du Pont; a black classical composer in the Lost Generation of 1920s Paris; an orphanage founder who created a famous brass band from the ranks of his abandoned waifs, a number of whom went on to burgeoning careers in jazz; and a Harleston mistress who doubled as an abortionist.

With evocative and engrossing storytelling, Edward Ball introduces a cast of historical characters rarely seen before: cultured, vain, imperfect, rich, and black, a family made up of eccentrics who defied social convention yet whose advantages could not protect them from segregation's locked doors, a plague of early death, and the stigma of children born outside marriage.

The Sweet Hell Inside raises the curtain on a unique family drama in the pageant of American life and uncovers a fascinating lost world.

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

In researching the bestseller Slaves in the Family (1998), Ball encountered William Harleston (1804-1874), a white man whose family considered him a bachelor though he lived for 25 years with Kate Wilson, his former slave, on and around the South Carolina rice plantation where he was born. They had eight children (born between 1843 and 1867) whose family history is recounted here largely via the memories of Edwina Harleston Whitlock (b. 1916), Ball's previously unknown relation, who referenced the "little red book" and "snippets of letters, handwritten copies of wills and genealogical charts" passed on to her by an uncle. Covering nearly 200 years, Ball's book tells "a tale of black and white sex in America, and its latter-day harvest," distinguished by remarkable family accomplishments and sprinkled with diverting scandal. By 19th-century standards, William and Kate's sons were educated professionals (butler, housepainter, tailor); their daughters married well. Their son Edwin's undertaking business brought wealth and status, affording the next generation a good education and the means to pursue the arts, teaching and social work. More fame arrived when Edwin's daughter married Daniel Joseph Jenkins, "a dark minister who was born a slave," who became founder of the orphanage in Charleston that spawned the Jenkins Orphanage Band, a force in the development of jazz. Ball's somewhat uneven work often digresses into such subjects as the history of jazz, the Harlem Renaissance and even embalming. A genealogical chart would have benefited readers, and scholars will find the notes a thorny grab bag. But Ball's mosaic illuminates the Harlestons' "little-known but fascinating role in the American national saga." More than 60 photos not seen by PW. (Oct.) Forecast: Given the attention paid Ball's previous book and the currency of his subject, especially following the Jefferson-Hemings story, this one should attract strong attention and approach the sales of its predecessor. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Booklist Review

The Harlestons of South Carolina were descended from a slave woman and her master, the start of a line of fair-skinned blacks who rose to prominence in the state through commerce, social service, and the arts. Their wealth protected the Harlestons from the privations suffered by other blacks, but their racial heritage subjected them to the same stifling discrimination. Ball, author of award-winning Slaves in the Family (1998), was approached by Edwina Harleston Whitlock, a distant black relative (a sixth cousin, twice removed), to take a storehouse of genealogical material she had about her family and to write its history. The result is a stunning look at a fascinating family and the history of blacks in the U.S. from the 1800s to the 1960s. Through the Harlestons, Ball explores the privileged though restricted lives of mixed-race blacks in a family that produced a portrait artist who painted industrialist Pierre DuPont and a musician who found fame in Paris in the 1920s for composing classical and jazz music. Ball also explores the broader context of changes in racial politics and culture in the U.S. from the rise of black consciousness in music and art to the advent of the civil rights movement. Sure to be as popular as his earlier book. --Vanessa Bush

Kirkus Review

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.

Library Journal Review

White Southerner Ball investigated his family's slave-holding past in Slaves in the Family and won a National Book Award. Here he investigates the Harlestons, an elite black family of the Jazz Age with whom he also has ties. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One William Harleston was born in 1804 at The Hut, a plantation owned by his parents, twenty-five miles north of Charleston, South Carolina. The Hut was one of several assets in a Harleston dynasty of land and slaves. (Other family estates were named Rice Hope and Richmond.) Few records have survived from William Harleston's youth. Even his birth date is in question -- the year is known, but there is no record of the day -- as though it had been clipped from memory. A genealogy states that he was one of five children, with three older sisters, Hannah, Sarah, and Constantia, and one younger brother, John. As a boy growing up on The Hut, a one-thousand-acre rice plantation with about sixty slaves, William would have passed his youth in ways appropriate to his class and sex: he hunted deer and fished, was schooled in classics and mathematics by private tutors, and attended the glittering society balls held every winter in nearby Charleston. The Harleston family's holdings made his life indolent and luxurious. Despite its many comforts, William's childhood was strained by high expectations, because he carried the unusual burden of a heroic family legacy handed down by his father. In the 1770s, a quarter of a century before William's birth, the Harlestons had fought bravely during the Revolutionary War. William's father, William Harleston Sr., and his uncle Isaac had both risked everything to win American independence. Only twenty when the war began, William Senior served as an infantryman before returning to the family lands to help supply food to American soldiers; but Isaac, then in his thirties, passed through an extraordinary war. Isaac Harleston had left his plantation, which was known as Irishtown, to become a captain in one of the earliest fights of the conflict, the Battle of Fort Sullivan, on June 28, 1776, a deadly assignment during which a few hundred American patriots repulsed an attack on Charleston by a flotilla of British warships. After that American victory, the British left the South alone for two years. In the meantime, Isaac loaned the revolutionary movement sixty-five hundred pounds, putting muscle in the phrase of the Declaration of Independence, "our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." Six months after the loan, in 1778, the British returned, and Isaac was elevated to the rank of major in command of the Sixth Regiment of the Continental army. He fought for eighteen months in various campaigns, but in May 1780 Isaac was in Charleston when it fell to the British, and he was taken prisoner. While many rebels now swore allegiance to the Crown in order to escape punishment, Major Harleston stayed true to the cause. Eventually Isaac was released to a victor's welcome and returned to quiet citizenship. He died in 1798. To be an heir to such patriotism gave young William Harleston of The Hut the aura of an American prince. As he grew up, William seemed ready to take his natural place in the elite circle of slaveholding landlords. But his own father foreshadowed another outcome when, adding to his white children, the elder William had a mixed-race son, born to one of his slaves. The name of the boy's mother has not survived, but the child was given the name Isaac, after the war hero. Although there was a taboo against interracial sex, in reality ruling-class men often had brown children with their black slaves. As long as the children were kept away from white relatives, and the taboo received lip service, silence about the offspring could be maintained. But this was not the case with Isaac. Family tradition describes Isaac as a short brown man. Born a slave in the 1780s, the illicit Isaac grew up at The Hut and at some point was evidently given his freedom. However, instead of leaving the vicinity, a frequent outcome in such cases, Isaac stayed right in the thick of family business. He became a steward on a riverboat that his Harleston relatives used, then married and fathered three children of his own, the first of whom (his name was Edward) settled on the Harleston plantation known as Rice Hope. Rice Hope stood about a mile from The Hut, which meant that the young William, as an impressionable child, had ample time to see and speak to the living fruit of his father's wayward sexuality. In South Carolina, a few rich families like the Harlestons lived comfortably, while the majority of people, black slaves, were consigned to a form of living hell. South Carolina covers a relatively small area, thirty-one thousand square miles, about a third less land than Virginia. But in William Harleston's day, Charleston, a large and queenly port city, set a worldly tone. Charleston ranked fourth in size in cities in the United States, after New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Its port shipped out homegrown necessities -- mainly rice and cotton tilled by black hands -- and received a stream of luxuries in return from the Northern states and from Europe. The tons of silver, imported clothing, and fine furniture that came back all floated up to the top tier of society. The crumbs fell to a poor white working class, and the dregs dribbled to the slaves. Although the United States had banned the import of slaves in 1808, West Africans who had previously arrived in Charleston in chains filled the state. In 1820, blacks in South Carolina outnumbered whites 265,000 to 237,000. (The state was one of only two with a black majority, the other being Louisiana.) William's family was among the lucky few. With their houses in Charleston and plantations outside town, the Harlestons were within the wealthiest one percent of all Americans. Census records show that during America's slaveholding years, there were more white bachelors living in the South than in the rest of the country. This anomaly was probably not the result of a surplus... (Continues...) Excerpted from The Sweet Hell Inside by Robert Edward Ball. Copyright © 2001 by Edward Ball. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.