Emancipation after 162 years

In a recent court decision, four children were officially freed, 162 years after being forced into slavery.

In 1850, a gang from Kentucky crossed the Ohio River and kidnapped eight free black children from the Polly family in Lawrence County, Ohio. They took the children back across the river. Four of the children were soon liberated and returned to Ohio. Four were sold into Wayne County, Va., where they were enslaved by William Ratcliff on his large farm on the Virginia-Kentucky border.

The state of Ohio decided to object to the kidnapping. This was not an immediate reaction because Ohio, a border state, had slavery sympathizers and complex politics. Slaveholding was legal in northern states, even though purchasing new slaves was no longer legal there. (There were still people legally enslaved in northern states – including New York, New Jersey, and Maryland – at the start of the Civil War.) The Ohio Legislature eventually authorized funds for a manumission case to free the children. Polly v. Ratcliff was started, and filed in Virginia.

Ratcliff, the slave owner, vigorously resisted. The Virginia state courts were not sympathetic to the issue and took their time. The case went to the Virginia Appeals Court and was remanded back to Wayne County. It was in progress when the Civil War interrupted. Everything came to a halt. Wayne County saw ongoing small battles and much destruction. The case was never concluded.

The 13th Amendment ended slavery. Three Polly children returned to Ohio. One had died in slavery and is buried in Wayne County.

The case was forgotten. William Ratcliff died in 1886. The last of the Polly children died in the early 1900s.

Ironically, William Ratcliff, the slave owner, was a strong Unionist. Though he owned slaves, he believed in the sanctity of the Union. He was instrumental in the western counties’ separating from Virginia and forming the Union state of West Virginia in 1863. Ratcliff was threatened with death several times, and his property and family were threatened by Confederates during the war.

Many slaveholders and slavery sympathizers supported and fought for the Union because of their belief in the importance of a united country. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the Confederate territories. It did not free the many slaves in the Union states. It was feared that this might tip those border Union states or regions of states (southern Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, southern Indiana, Missouri, and even parts of Illinois) to the Confederate side. It took the 13th Amendment, in 1865, to finally free the slaves in all of the United States.

In recent years, Jim Hale, a descendant of the Polly Family, was looking into his family history. He knew there was a Wayne County, W.Va. connection. He knew of the Polly v. Ratcliff case but not its outcome. Hale happened to meet Wayne County Judge Steven Lewis (a close friend of mine since middle school and a fellow classmate at Marshall University and West Virginia University Law School). Judge Lewis is a Wayne County history buff. He contacted another historian and author, Robert Thompson. They resurfaced the Polly v. Ratcliff case. Judge Lewis researched and reconstructed the old court records. They determined the case had never been completed.

Hale, with Judge Lewis, decided to complete the process. Nunc pro tunc is a Latin term meaning “now for then.” A court has the power to retroactively correct errors. A nunc pro tunc order means that something is now done that should have been done then. Judge Lewis prepared the nunc pro tunc petition and the record, with Hale, a great-great-grandson of one of the kidnapped children, as petitioner. The Wayne County Court reopened the case in 2012.

Judge Darrel Pratt presided over the trial. Judge Lewis, Polly family descendants, and others read into evidence testimony and handwritten depositions from the 1850s. Judge Pratt ruled that the children were free, had always been free, and that William Ratcliff had broken the law by enslaving free people.

Why now? Justice can be slow, but rarely is it delayed by 162 years. Why make this effort now?

Our courts have made similar efforts to right old wrongs, and even to do symbolic justice. It can be important for families, communities, and our society. The courts have belatedly restored the good names of long-deceased, wrongly convicted citizens, validated the constitutional rights of Japanese Americans who were interned during World War II, and sought to truthfully correct the record with regard to other long-past situations involving ethnic, racial, and civil rights issues. A vibrant democracy is strong enough to bring the truth to light, even if it takes a long time.

Perhaps Professor Atiba Rutlidge states it best in a recent West Virginia Law Review article on the case: “Wayne County thought it necessary to set the record straight. … The power of truth telling is an important interest of the government as a means to take responsibility. … Such truth telling can go toward healing the harms of slavery on a personal and societal level.”

An old case should remind us of a current issue. Our workers are no longer supposed to be subjected to slavery or involuntary servitude. Slavery is, however, still a problem. It is still legal in some countries. Industrial slavery, sexual slavery, and involuntary servitude are growing around the world. Workers are kept in virtual slavery in agriculture and manufacturing facilities, producing cheap goods for our markets.


This is not just a Third World issue. There are ongoing instances in the United States in which farm laborers or sweatshop workers are locked in, guarded, and subjected to involuntary servitude and abusive conditions. New immigrants, children, and people with cognitive disabilities have been the most frequent victims.

Polly v. Ratcliff seeks to bring closure, righting an old wrong. It should help make us aware of current wrongs and remind us that slavery is not old history – it needs current attention.

Abarnare is a Latin term meaning to discover and disclose a secret crime and to bring it to justice. Rather than belated nunc pro tunc, we can devote more focus on abarnare.

For more information on this case, see the article “Polly v. Ratcliff: a New Way to Address an Original Sin” by Atiba R. Rutlidge, West Virginia Law Review, Winter 2012-2013; read the book A Few Among the Mountains: Slavery in Wayne County by Robert Thompson (2012); visit www.facebook.com/rmthompsonbooks; or write to Judge Steven Lewis, Wayne County Courthouse, Wayne, W.Va. for transcripts of the case. PBS also featured the case in an episode of Finding Your Roots. It included commentary by singer John Legend, a Polly family descendant.

Bob Gregg is a partner with Boardman & Clark Law Firm. 

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