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Stu Levitan welcomes Edward Ball, his latest book is the most extraordinary family memoir I have ever read, Life Of A Klansman: A Family History In White Supremacy, from the good people at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Demographers tell us that about 137 million white Americans – more than half the current white population of the country – are direct descendants of members of the Ku Klux Klan, mostly from the second wave, from 1915 to 1925. Edward Ball’s link to the Klan goes back even further. His grandmother’s grandfather was Polycarp Constant Lecorgne, a downwardly mobile carpenter of French Creole descent born in New Orleans in 1832. He served – none-too-honorably — as a Confederate soldier during the Civil War and then in its immediate aftermath joined the first generation of the Ku-Klux and other white terrorist groups in their murderous and successful effort to “redeem” their heritage, end Reconstruction and reestablish white supremacy.
The story of Constant Lecorgne is a profoundly important microhistory, showing how the life of this very ordinary, even mediocre person reflects an entire culture that helped change history. Because the tragic reality is that, through men like Constant Lecorgne, the South snatched victory from the jaws of defeat; the Klan was not put down; the Klan faded because it won, preserving white supremacy for another hundred years.
It is a story Edward Ball is exceptionally, even uniquely well-qualified to tell. His first book, for which he won the 1998 National Book Award for Nonfiction, was Slaves in the Family, an account both of his father’s family, major slaveholders in South Carolina for 170 years, and the histories of ten Black families once enslaved on their rice plantations. His other books include The Sweet Hell Inside: The Rise of an Elite Black Family in the Segregated South; The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures; The Genetic Strand: Exploring A Family History Through DNA, and Peninsula of Lies: A True Story of Mysterious Birth and Taboo Love. The recipient of a Public Scholar Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities and several fellowships, he has also taught at Yale University and the State University of NY, and joins us today from his home in New Haven.
It is a great pleasure to welcome to Madison Bookbeat, Edward Ball.