Black deaths were not recorded, except as property loss

Sin is passed down from generation to generation. As it goes, it snowballs. At some point, within five generations of Ballards in Camden, South Carolina, someone bought or was gifted Lea or her mother Hannah Reynolds. It is never mentioned that Lea certainly experienced the dreaded separation from her mother that came like clockwork to nearly every enslaved human being – either through death or sale. We don’t know anything about Hannah Reynolds except that she existed. Her name is listed on Lea’s death certificate: “Mother: Hannah Reynolds.” That’s it. There was once a Hannah Reynolds whose mother’s mother’s mother’s mother was brought to Virginia’s shores from Nigerian soil. She was Hausa. She was Yoruba. She was strong-willed and smart. She willed herself to live aboard that death ship. Then she survived countless indignities, but she also figured out a way to live and keep her children alive. Hannah was never listed with Lea on any census after the Civil War. They were separated, by death or sale in the antebellum era. Because Lea was listed as mulatto on the 1880 census, we know that Hannah suffered the violence of penetration, and that is how Lea came into the world. All of Lea’s children are listed as mulatto on the same census. Like her mother, she would suffer that violence – again and again. That is all we know about Lea. These histories are never recorded. Instead, historians chronicled the mundanity of enslavers’ lives. They made sure we knew that David Ballard was born then and married so and so then and begat him who married her and died here, and so on. 

White births and marriages and deaths were recorded with meticulous precision. Full names, dates, and locations help trace White life from South Carolinian soil to the homelands of Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England. Only the fortunate few people of African descent find listings of their ancestors in court documents, land deeds (if free persons), or among the beds and pitchforks willed to the next White antebellum generation. The early colonial race laws that shaped the lives of Fortune and her Maryland and Virginia descendants explicitly declared that the births of African-descended people (even those who were free) were not important enough to record. Likewise, Black deaths were not recorded, except as property loss.

On cotton, rice, and brick plantations across antebellum South Carolina, the muffled wails of mothers like Lea rose, the only testimony of their children’s passing. One in every three children enslaved on cotton plantations died before their sixteenth birthday. It was even worse in the low country: one in three children passed before their first birthday in the malaria-laden swamplands of rice plantations. Malaria, dysentery, cholera, and neglect account for the majority of Black children’s deaths in antebellum South Carolina. Lea had seventeen children, but we have no record of five of them. The five born under the tyranny of slavery likely died or were sold or gifted deeper south, forced to follow the next generations of White Ballards into Georgia, Alabam, and Mississippi. Gone forever. 

From “Fortune: How Race Broke My Family and the World–and How to Repair It All” by Lisa Sharon Harper