"I wanted to write an origin story for white supremacy," the author tells PEOPLE. "This is my family history and it's relevant to the present. I thought I might be able to help"

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edward ball
The author
| Credit: Nina Subin

Growing up, Edward Ball’s family talked quietly about their relative from the 1800s, who was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. “But we had a saying,” says the New Orleans native. “Wash your dirty laundry inside the family.”

Now 61, Ball —whose first nonfiction book, Slaves in the Family, about the slaves owned by his ancestors, won the National Book Award—ignored that advice. He wrote another book about his family, Life of a Klansman.

Hoping to hold up the ugly truth to all Americans, he tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, “History does not repeat itself, but it harmonizes. White supremacy is very much back in the public square.”

He first heard about his great-great-grandfather Polycarp Constant Lecorgne from his great-aunt Maud, the family’s de facto historian, as they dined on Lecorgne’s cherrywood Victorian table, which his family had inherited.

“We had probably a thousand meals with him, in a way,” says Ball.

His aunt, who died in 1965, would tell her young nephew, “Oh, it’s a shame what Constant got up to.” But chillingly, Maud was not apologetic. “He was in the center of important things here in New Orleans,” she would tell Ball. “Without him, we would not have the society we have today.”

edward ball
life of a klansman by edward ball
Polycarp Constant Lecorgne
| Credit: private collection

As he grew older, Ball realized, to his horror, how right she was. When his mother died in 2003, he returned to his boyhood home and found disturbing family lore from Maud and pictures of Lecorgne among her belongings. The family resemblance was undeniable.

“I inherited his underbite,” Ball says.

In 2016, after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Charleston, South Carolina massacre at Emanuel AME Church, and the police killings of Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray, Ball wrestled with how to help end systemic racism. He began to think about the origins of white supremacy and started extensive research in his hometown to get to know his Klansman ancestor better.

For more on Edward Ball, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

“He was part of my family,” Ball says. “I have a feeling of shame.”

He turned to what he knew: writing.

The result is a study of his family as much as America. New Orleans in the mid-1800s was not so dissimilar to today’s America: There was severe racial injustice, yellow fever, economic disparity, protests, election chaos—and that was all before the Civil War. And then the rise of the KKK.

RELATED VIDEO: Meet 5 Inspiring People Charting the Path Forward as America Fights Racism

edward ball and family
Ball with his family
| Credit: Courtesy Edward Ball

“Many people could have written this book,” Ball says.

From his anthropological research, he says as many as 140 million people in America could have a Klansman in their lineage.

“The history of race in America—it’s like there’s a wound, and it’s been sealed over with poison still inside of it," he says. "I thought that by irrigating the wound and trying to wash out the poison and expose it, it might have a medicinal effect.”

To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
  • ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
  • National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.