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Finally free: an Ohio summer teacher institute and a family’s 162-year-old court battle for freedom

June 27, 2012 | By Federal/State Partnership Staff

The Ohio Humanities Council's annual compliance plan submitted to Federal/State Partnership included a story that emerged from a 2011 OHC-supported teacher institute, "River of Slavery, River of Freedom," directed by Greg Miller at the University of Rio Grande in southeastern Ohio.

The teacher institute course materials included the story of the Polly family, a slave family that had been freed after which seven of their children were kidnapped and taken to Kentucky where they were enslaved again. The family went to court in 1851 to have their children declared free, but to no avail. The case re-emerged over the years, but inconclusively. It was complicated by the fact that the family had gained its freedom in Kentucky and moved to Ohio, and that the kidnapped children were resold as slaves to Virginia (now West Virginia). Twenty-first century descendants of the Polly family, researching their ancestry, brought attention to the case. It was finally brought conclusively to trial in West Virginia this year and judgment was made that these long-dead children had indeed been free at the time they were kidnapped. The case was finally closed.

During the  "River of Slavery, River of Freedom" teacher institute, Mike Gerlach, the mayor of Middleport, an Ohio town on the Ohio River, led the teachers on a tour of Underground Railroad sites. His daughter is an attorney who had told him of an upcoming trial involving a slave family and its current descendants who were trying to have their family declared to have been free. When the mayor relayed this story to Elaine Armstrong, one of the institute's instructors, she told him about the Polly family, thinking that they might be the family in question. She shared what she knew with the mayor, who shared it with his daughter, who shared it with the judges.

The case was heard on April 6, 2012 and after reviewing every deposition dating back to 1847, Judge Darrell Pratt of Wayne County, WV, decreed that the four known kidnapped and re-enslaved Polly children were and had been legally free.

Here is the email account of what happened and how a state humanities council supported project became involved in this landmark case. Elaine Armstrong reviewed the story and shared her experience with this court case in an email sent to others involved in the summer teacher institute. Her email appears as she wrote it and with her permission.

Hello......

 

Just wanted to take a few moments and inform you about this amazing "conclusion" to one of the stories we read about and discussed in our "Frontline of Freedom" [part of the "River of Slavery, River of Freedom" summer teacher institute] workshop/class last summer.

 

If you still have the course book from our class, please take a few minutes and read the first few pages of Chapter 6, about the Polly slave family.....about being declared free in Kentucky in 1850, moved to Ironton, Ohio...and then the seven children were abducted/kidnapped in the middle of the night back into slavery and taken back to Kentucky. Bottom line....they never got all of the children back. By the time the Kentucky courts had declared them free (1856)....4 of the children had already been sold again in Virginia (now West Virginia).....remained tied up in the courts, involving 3 states for 162 years! Never got the kids, their freedom was tied up in the courts......they remained slaves.

 

Now fast forward to right now....2012!  (lol)

 

Mike Gerlach, the Mayor of Middleport and who is also the man that took us [the institute participants] on the 2 hour Underground Railroad walking tour in Middleport, Ohio called me one day last week. He told that his daughter is an attorney in Wayne County, WV....and that there was going to be an upcoming trial about a slave family that involved their children being stolen away, and that the trial would be held on April 6th (Good Friday) at the Wayne County Courthouse. Mike had never heard or read about the family, but as soon as he said slaves/abducted children/never resolved, I knew it was the Polly Family. I was sooooo excited....I told Mike everything I knew about it, he told his daughter, she told the judges, and they in turn wanted to meet with Mike and I for dinner to further discuss the case!! Long story short, last Wednesday evening Mike Gerlach and I had dinner with two of the Judges that would be hearing the case, and the one of the Polly family descendants that completed all of the research in order to take it back to the courts and get it resolved. I almost had to pinch myself....I couldn't believe it.  What are the odds@!?#@!

 

In conclusion, the case was heard on yesterday afternoon to a packed courthouse, media from various places were there, every deposition about the case was read aloud....dating back to 1847 by the family descendant and various court officials and attorneys.....and then the final moment that everyone was waiting for....Judge Pratt's final closing statement and the ruling that the Polly children were then and now declared forevermore "Free".  It was all I could do to fight back the tears, and the family openly, but quietly cried. It is reported that the family may be meeting with John Legend (Grammy winning musician/entertainer) very soon....evidently his family ancestry is connected to the Polly family. 

 

Now some people would call this "luck"....but I choose to think of it as Divine Providence. And I got to personally witness and experience every bit of it. And, the judges gave me a copy of every jot and tittle that had ever been written regarding the Polly family. I took my class coursebook with me and had the judges and the descendants sign their names on that chapter of the book. This has been a surreal experience for me....still just can't believe it.

 

Sorry about this email being so long.....but in my excitement, I just had to share it with some of you that participated in the discussions and the class assignments about this particular family. ...

 

Thanks Sam for writing the grant and selecting this particular coursebook. Several family members plan to purchase this book.

Please take a few minutes and look at the short video that WSAZ television posted online about the Polly Family day in court. ...

 

Have a blessed Easter....

 

Elaine Armstrong 4/7/12

This case has been covered in the media by, for example, the Victorville, CA, Daily Press, the hometown newspaper of Theresa Polley Shellcroft, a descendant of the Pollys; the Ironton Tribune of Lawrence County, OH; the Huntington, WV Herald-Dispatch; the Marietta, OH Daily Journal; and the Charleston Daily Mail (WV). In an episode about actor and singer-songwriter John Legend, a Polly descendant, former NEH Jefferson Lecturer Henry Louis Gates, Jr. included the Polly story in his PBS series "Finding Your Roots." The American Experience documentary, "Slavery and the Making of America," includes documentation about the Pollys on its website.

This story is also included in the June 2012 Federal/State Partnership e-newsletter.