Family's ancestors declared free
by Marcus E. Howard
May 22, 2012 12:01 AM | 8036 views | 14 14 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Yvonne Polley Fullen and YLonne Polley Fullen Swails, both of Smyrna, remember the emotion in the courtroom in West Virginia last month when the judge made his announcement that their ancestors were free, bring closure to a legal fight that was more than a century old.
Yvonne Polley Fullen and YLonne Polley Fullen Swails, both of Smyrna, remember the emotion in the courtroom in West Virginia last month when the judge made his announcement that their ancestors were free, bring closure to a legal fight that was more than a century old.
SMYRNA — Twin sisters YLonne Polley Fullen Swails and Yvonne Polley Fullen, both of Smyrna, are now at peace with a family saga that took more than 150 years to settle.

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
Comments-icon Post a Comment
June 20, 2014
West Virginia is an illegal state that entered the Union as a slave state. Lincoln did not want to interfere with slavery one way or the other.
May 25, 2012
Sometimes it just isn’t worth reading the comments section. Ignorant folks always seem to respond. Their mamas didn’t tell them ‘if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.’ The first thing out of an ignorant person’s mouth is how Blacks have never done anything/always bringing up the past/their kind sold them in Africa/their looking for handouts…yada, yada, yada. If you don’t want us bringing up our past, stop printing history books with your so-called accomplishments.

Statistic: Most people on welfare are white; do your research.

I think part of the negativity is fear. Now that DNA is proving a lot of whites have black blood… well, look-a-here! Take that test & then shut up.
Truth Patrol
May 28, 2012
Speaking of "mamas", did you know yours?
D. Cameron
May 23, 2012
Congratulations on a successful search to right a wrong and obtain a degree of justice.

We all carry the benefits and burdens of our heritage. My family were mid-19th century European immigrants. Yes, they probably suffered some religious and ethnic injustices. BUT, because of our white skin coloring, my family, my children & grandchildren have had some automatic advantages. Doors opened more quickly and easily for us. And none could be enslaved.

Nor did those immigrants own slaves. YET,they, I & my children share in the American experience of which slavery & racial injustice is an integral part.

No, we do NOT need to apologize for slavery, BUT we MUST understand & acknowledge & remember the horror, impact,& continuing legacy of slavery & injustice.

After more than 200 years, you CAN turn the page in a history book, but you CANNOT turn the page on history. As individuals and as a nation we both shape and are shaped by our shared culture & our perception of the past. Though we are not responsible for actions of the past, we bear the responsibility to right the wrongs and replace injustice with justice.

If someone stole our great great great grandparents gold or silver and it was discovered, I suspect we'd all want it back. How much more important than gold and silver are PEOPLE themselves.
May 23, 2012
Perhaps. However, carping about a condition that happened dating all the way back to the Pharaohs (who enslaved their own black people) is banal and completely overlooks their real problems and lack of responsibility: illegitimacy lack of education and a complete lack of social skills. Now, I guess, they will always continue to "blame" others, therefore fooling no one but themselves. However, that will never disguise the fact that, no matter what has been given to them, they remain at the bottom of social acceptance...merely because they are simply too lazy to do anything for themselves...without asking for help.
Virginia Wood
May 22, 2012
Yeah, heaven forfend they should remind us of our past crimes. But it's ok, I guess, if white Southerners keep up with their reminders of the war.
May 22, 2012
Sorry, but I never owned one. Therefore, no apologies are necessary, required or should be expected for something that began in Africa with the selling of their own population...over 200 years ago by their own people!
Gringo Bandito
May 23, 2012
What past crimes have I committed?
thomas saw
May 23, 2012
Remember, only 5 percent of southerners held slaves.
A lawyer
May 22, 2012
Justice! How sweet - and maybe even more so after such a long delay. Congratulations to the family.
Wise Sage
May 22, 2012
Someone should tell these 2 women that it is difficult to move forward if one is always looking backward.
May 22, 2012
Fact is that some people shall forever spend their time reminding others that they were/are victims. ZZZZZZ!
a good defense
May 22, 2012
I fail to see why these ladies should feel any worse, than the people that insist on flying Confederate Flags and reenacting Civil War battles.
West Cobb Resident
May 22, 2012
Hopefully these ladies will now be able to carry on with the rest of their lives.
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