Emancipation After 162 Years

(Polly v. Ratcliff, Wayne Co. WV Cir. Ct., 2012)

In a recent court decision, four children have been 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, Virginia, 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 since 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 at the start of the Civil War, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C.).  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 toward 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 owning 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 threatened by Confederates during the war. 

There were many slaveholders and slavery sympathizers who supported and fought for the Union, due to 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 slaves in all of the United States. 

In recent years, Mr. Jim Hale, a descendant of the Polly Family, was looking into his family history.  He knew there was a Wayne County, West Virginia connection.  He knew of the Polly v. Ratcliff case, but not its outcome.  Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 which should have been done then. 

Judge Lewis prepared the nunc pro tunc petition and the record, with Mr. Hale, a great-great grandson of one of the kidnapped children, as petitioner.  The Wayne County Court decided it was time to do justice, and 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 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 the families, the communities and our society.  The courts have belatedly restored the good names of long deceased wrongly-convicted citizens, vindicated the Constitutional rights of World War II interred Japanese Americans, and sought to truthfully correct the record of long past situations regarding other ethnic, racial and civil rights issues.  A vibrant democracy is strong enough to surface the truth, even if it takes a long time.

Perhaps Professor Atiba Rutlidge states this best in the 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 workforce is no longer supposed to include slavery or involuntary servitude.  They are, however, alive in our current world.  Slavery 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 discovered in the United States in which farm laborers or sweatshop workers are locked in, guarded and work in involuntary servitude and abusive conditions.  New immigrants, children and people with cognitive disabilities have been the most frequent victims.  (See Boardman & Clark Employment Law Update, December 2012, Abuse of Disabled Workers’ Sub-Minimum Wage Rule at Turkey Farm.) 

Polly v. Ratcliff seeks to bring closure, righting an old wrong.  It should remind us of current wrongs and that slavery is not old history but 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 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.  The book A Few Among the Mountains: Slavery in Wayne County, Robert Thompson, © 2012, www.facebook.com/rmthompsonbooks, or write to Judge Steven Lewis, Wayne County Courthouse, Wayne, West Virginia 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, Boardman & Clark Labor and Employment Attorney