Martin Luther ‘Num’ Ball remembered as a ‘fine old soul’

By Linda Emley 

Since February is Black History Month, I want to share some history about how it started. First, I checked with a good authority to make certain that “Black History Month” is  the appropriate title, rather than “National African American History Month,” as I’ve seen it in some places.

I checked the NAACP Web site and it noted that “Every year during the month of February, we celebrate Black History Month.” I figure if it’s OK with the NAACP, it’s fine for our story.

1976 was the first year that a U.S. President officially declared February as Black History Month. Gerald R. Ford told Americans to “Seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The story of  Black History Month begins in 1915 when a Harvard-educated man, Carter G. Woodson, and a minister named Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the study of Negro Life and History. This organization is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. That group hosted the first national Negro History week in 1926 and later changed it to a month -long event. February was chosen because Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas both had birthdays in February.

I thought it would be interesting to take our 1881 Ray County History Book and see what kind of stories we could find for Black History Month. There were some interesting facts in this post-Civil War world. In this story, the term “colored” is used in some places because I’m quoting our history as it appeared in 1881.

In 1870, there were 18,700 people living in Ray County, including 16,867 who were white and 1,833 African American. These figures helped me understand our history because I didn’t know there were 15 schools located in Ray County in 1881 for black students. The number of school-age children of color between the age of six and 20 was 329 males and 227 females. The only school mentioned by name was in Richmond. “Teachers elected for colored school in Richmond for 1881 to 1882, to commence September are John D. Waltan, principal; and Milan McGee, assistant teacher.”  In 1881, the Missouri constitution, Sec 3 said, “Separate free public schools shall be established for the education of children of African descent.”

The 1881 history book, page 301, had a story about the “colored soldiers” of Ray County. “In the fall and winter of 1863, a large number of colored soldiers were recruited from Ray County, and mustered into the service in St. Louis, Missouri, (Benton barracks.) They were assigned to duty and did service in the 18th, 62d, 65th, 67th, and 68th regiments, United States colored troops. Companies A and B, 62nd United States colored troops, and company A, 67th United States colored troops, were composed largely of colored troops, recruited from Ray county, Missouri, and continued in the service until after the close of the war.”

I did some research on the Benton barracks and found that life in the Civil War was not the same for the so-called colored troops. “A camp of former slaves was located at Benton Barracks. During the summer of 1863, St. Louis was inundated by thousands of refugee slaves. The government had no way to determine who were slaves or “freedmen,” so all were all treated as freedmen. On certain occasions slave owners tried to retrieve their subjects, but Union guards would only allow slaves to go willingly and without abuse.”

In 1989, there were four classic movies nominated for the best picture of the year. They were: Field of Dreams, Dead Poets Society, Born on the 4th of July and Driving Miss Daisy. All of these movies are still enjoyed 22 years later, but Driving Miss Daisy was the one that won the Academy Award. Richmond had its own real-life version of “Driving Miss Daisy” that featured Martin Luther “Num” Ball and three generations of the Ball family. Just like Miss Daisy’s driver, Num Ball started out working for the family, but in the end, he was a member of the family.

“Martin Luther ‘Num’ Ball, for 48 years was a member of the Richmond Methodist church, and the only colored member of that church, died last night at 6 o’clock at his home, 526 E. Lexington street. Born into slavery in the Ball family in 1856, he made his home with Mrs. J. E. Ball where he ‘was one of the family.’ He had suffered from heart disease for the past 5 or 6 years. During the past two years he was almost an invalid and was bedfast for the last two months preceding his death. One of Richmond’s most colorful figures, and highly respected, he was described this morning by Dr. W. L. Scarborough, presiding elder of the Richmond district of the Methodist church, as a ‘fine old soul.’ Leading members of the Methodist church expressed their confidence in him by referring to him as the ‘best member of the church.’ The funeral services will be held tomorrow afternoon from his church–the Methodist church–at 3 o’clock. Dr. Scarborough will have charge of the services. Miss Mabel Jackson and Miss Sally Jackson will sing hymns which were Mr. Ball’s favorites. At the grave, a colored quartet from the C. M. E. church in Richmond will sing “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” The quartet only a few days before Num’s death, called on him and sang the song. He was so pleased with it, that the quartet has been requested to sing it in his memory at the grave. His real name was Martin Luther Ball. He was born in Lexington in 1856, the son of Lucinda Ball. His mother was a slave in the family of James S. Ball. When the Civil war broke out in 1861, Num was quite young and time after time Confederate soldiers were fed, quartered and hidden in the Ball mansion overlooking the Missouri river. Mrs. Ball died soon after she learned of the death of Mr. Ball and one of his sons in the battle of Wilson Creek. Following Mrs. Ball’s death, with Miss Betty and Miss Ann Ball, the daughters of Mrs. Ball, Num came to Richmond to make his home with Marion Ball, the Misses Ball’s brothers. He then worked in the blacksmith shop owned by Mr. Ball and Mr. Asbury until he became too old for such strenuous work. In the cyclone of 1876 Marion Ball was killed and Num was so badly injured that it was thought he could not recover. After the cyclone, he moved to Columbia, Mo., where he lived for a few years, later returning to Richmond with J. E. Ball, son of Marion Ball. Num will be buried in the Ball family lot in the city cemetery with the members of the family he had served for three generations. Funeral arrangements in charge of E. Thurman.” The Richmond Missourian: Nov. 11, 1935.

Num’s death certificate says he died at the age of 79 on Nov. 3, 1935. It listed him as single with an occupation as a blacksmith. Bessie Ball was the informant who supplied the information.

The 1973 Ray County History book gives a few more details about Num. A Methodist Church minister said he was always the first one to open the doors of the church, first to visit the sick, the first to greet new members and the first to arrive at a board meeting. When the church was divided about building a new building, Num quietly said, “If Methodism don’t build, Methodism will die in its shell.” The vote passed and a new building was built.

In the 1920 Census, Martin Luther Ball was listed as a “lodger’ twho lived with the Ball sisters, Bessie and Ethel. Ethel Bane Ball and Bessie Shotwell Ball were early members in of the local Allen-Morton-Watkins chapter of DAR. Ethel joined in 1914 and Bessie in 1920. Their ancestor, John Shotwell, was a patriot who served as a private in the militia in New Jersey. I am sure there are many people around who remember the ball sisters.

I would like to know how he got the nickname of “Num,” so please let me know if you have any ideas. Richmond’s “Martin Luther” Ball might not be as famous as Martin Luther King, but 80 years after his death, his memory lives on. We can only hope that we will still be remembered 80 years after we have gone on to meet our maker.

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