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Man's ancestors declared freed

Jul. 22, 2012 @ 03:45 PM

HUNTINGTON — A local family found vindication for its ancestors Friday in Wayne County Circuit Court, connecting two generations born 150 years apart.

Huntington resident Jim Hale and more than a dozen relatives celebrated the news that his great-great-grandfather, Harrison Polley, and three siblings, were given a decree of freedom from slavery.

Circuit Court Judge Darrell Pratt issued the decree after nearly two hours of depositions dug up from the 1850s and heard in Cabell County (Va.) and Wayne County (Va.) court. He called it justice for the Polley family and an important day for the region in terms of the local history of slavery.

"It's a relief, a burden off my heart," Hale said. "It's important for our family history to know our family was a free family and not slaves."

According to work done by Hale's brother, Aaron, and local historian Chris Saunders, the Polley children were free from slavery based on the will of their father's slave owner, David Polly. In Kentucky, slaves could be freed by an owner through a will.

That 1839 will was read in court by Pratt, who noted that it remains on file in Pike County, Ky. And that's what he based his decision on. He said it is clear that all, not just David and Douglas, should have been set free. Instead, Polly's daughter and husband took Peyton's wife, Violet, and her children. They would later sell them to David and Douglas to live as freed people in Lawrence County, Ohio. A bill of sale from more than 160 years ago was still part of the evidence from those cases, a copy of which was presented in court Friday. That showed, and Pratt agreed, that once they reached the free state of Ohio, they were indeed free people.

But kidnappers, hired by creditor's of Polly's son-in-law, David Campbell, took the children. Some were sold into slavery in Kentucky and later declared free by the court system. Four children -- Harrison, Nelson, Louisa and Anna -- were sold to William Ratcliffe, a prominent and wealthy resident of Wayne County, Va. His farm of more than 1,000 acres was the present-day location of Tolsia High School.

Ratcliffe lost a court case in Cabell County to keep the children as slaves, but it was overturned by the Virginia Assembly because jurisdiction was in Wayne County. The case was introduced in Wayne County in 1856, with records of the case ceasing in 1859. But, as Pratt noted, there was no conclusion and no order. Accidentally or not, he said, court records indicate no finding was made.

And that is what Hale and his family has been looking for -- legal closure that brings new pride to their family's history.

"This is a legacy for our family that future generations can talk about," Hale said. "My grandchildren can say, 'I sat in the courtroom as part of the story.'"

Hale's cousin, Dr. William Polley, drove in from Akron, Ohio, and was one of a handful of people to read the supporting depositions taken so many years ago. He said it was an amazing experience.

"It's important for everyone to know where their roots come from," Polley said. "Everybody can pass our story from generation to generation."

Pratt said he heard a few comments from folks that even putting the case on the docket was a waste of time because, they said, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation would have set his ancestors free regardless. However, some slaves were grandfathered in, meaning they were not free.

"Those children were free before the Civil War and before the Emancipation Proclamation," Pratt said. "They were and are free as of March 22, 1859.

"It's a very important piece of history for the Polley family and an incredible piece of history for Wayne County," he added.

That was not lost on the family, said Hale's daughter-in-law, Anisa Dye-Hale.

"It's righting a wrong that's 160 years in the making," she said. "Slavery is the greatest atrocity in human history. For my kids to witness the freedom of their ancestors is overwhelming."