For most of their 61 years, they were aware that their ancestors had been slaves in Kentucky, across from neighboring state West Virginia, where they grew up. They also believed those same ancestors had won their freedom, a source of pride — but couldn’t legally make that claim.
That is until a month ago, when a West Virginia judge issued a decree, recognizing that their great-great grandfather, Harrison Polley, and three siblings had been freed in the mid-19th century.
Though their enslaved ancestors didn’t get to realize the benefits of freedom until much later, after the Civil War, the sisters say it was important for their family to have that right be posthumously bestowed upon them.
“We all think that if you’re black in America, that you came from slaves,” said Swails, a retired IBM sales and marketing executive. “The reality is that some of our people were slaves, but a lot of them were not.”
In November 1839, David Polley of Pike County, Ky., filed a will that declared his desire to free his several slaves upon his death. Following Polley’s death in January 1847, his will was contested by his family. But in July 1849, the slaves were freed and moved across the river to the free state of Ohio.
There, Peyton Polley and his children, including Harrison, were living within a tiny community of free blacks. They even built a church that remains standing today. However, one night in June 1850, a gang of armed kidnappers forced their way into Peyton’s home and took all eight of his children.
By February 1851, the children, ages 4 to 17, had been sold through slave auctions to masters in Kentucky and Virginia.
But Peyton, desperate to find his children, sought recourse through the local court system. The case eventually reached the Ohio governor’s mansion and started a set of complex litigation, involving regional politics among Ohio, Kentucky and Virginia, in a country on the verge of civil war.
The Polley case became famous nationally, akin to the O.J. Simpson trial in scope, said Chris Saunders, a local historian in Ohio. He said it was likely that a young attorney from Kentucky named Abraham Lincoln would have known about it.
The Kentucky attorney general released half of the children to Peyton, but the others, including Harrison, remained in slavery for over a decade in part of Virginia, which later became the free state of West Virginia.
While the outcome of the Civil War and subsequent 13th Amendment ended slavery in America and returned the enslaved Polley children to freedom, the fact that the case, dating back to David Polley’s will, was never brought to a legal conclusion had always bothered latter descendants.
The story had been passed down through oral history to several generations of the Polley family, though the extent of it had been lost. “We knew about it, we just didn’t know that it was in textbooks being taught,” said Swails, who moved in 1977 to Georgia, a month before her twin.
Her first cousin, Jim Hale of West Virginia, led the way in bringing about closure for the family, including the sisters’ 83-year-old mother, Norma Jean Polley Fullen, who made sure her six children were born with the family’s Polley name.
After Hale, working with judges and historians such as Saunders, got the case reopened in West Virginia, the sisters said they received calls from numerous attorneys and judges in the area who were eager to be involved.
“What (Hale) wanted to do was basically to renew the suit and obtain an order that his ancestors and their siblings would be declared free,” said Wayne County, W.Va., Family Court Judge Stephen Lewis, who helped organize the retrial.
“It was obviously a symbolic thing that he wanted to have done, but after looking at the legal status of this, we decided that it was something that could be done.”
Finally, on Good Friday, April 6, 2012, Wayne County, W.Va. Circuit Court Judge Darrell Pratt issued the decree in a courtroom packed with emotions and about 30 Polley family members — representing five generations — along with a throng of attorneys, historians, reporters and even descendants of the kidnappers.
The decree followed two hours of depositions dug up from the 1850s. Various documents were presented on behalf of both sides as evidence, including the original 1839 will and a bill of sale from when some of Peyton’s children were sold to his brother by his owner’s daughter, before they moved to Ohio.
According to the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, W.Va., Pratt issued the decree based on the will that remains on file in Pike County, Ky.
Such cases involving free blacks being kidnapped into slavery were not all that uncommon on such borders as that between Ohio and Kentucky, said Connie Rice, a lecturer on slavery at the University of West Virginia.
“People didn’t care which person they brought back, as long as they got paid for it,” she said. “So they often would take people that were actually free and steal them back into the South.”
Though highly sought-after, freedom was relative for blacks in America’s early history. Typically, free blacks in the 19th century couldn’t vote, marry whites or testify in court against whites. However, they could own property, Rice said.
Fullen, a commercial debt collector, who traveled with her twin sister to the retrial, said the entire endeavor to right a past wrong was worth it.
“To know that our ancestors were free and just never had that opportunity to live as free people — it’s very rewarding for us,” she said of the ruling.
“Finding Your Roots,” a PBS series by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., aired the Polley family story on May 13 in tracing the family tree of Grammy award–winning singer John Legend, a direct descendant of Peyton. Fullen and Swails said they had no idea they were related to Legend, an Ohio native, until PBS contacted them last year.
They’ve yet to meet their famous cousin, but said he has been invited to a family reunion planned in August.
The episode of the show can be viewed online at PBS.org.