Home Celebrity John Legend: Ancestors Were Kidnapped, Just As in “12 Years a Slave”

Pop star and Grammy award winner John Legend is executive producing the soundtrack for “12 Years a Slave”–Columbia Records is releasing it on November 11th. Legend has an unusual connection to Steve McQueen’s extraordinary movie. His ancestors suffered a similar fate to Solomon Northrup in 1851– a decade after Northrup was kidnapped. The weird part of this is that Legend (real name John Stephens) didn’t know this until he participated in Henry Louis Gates’s PBS documentary “Finding Your Roots.”

The episode– in which Gates explores the families of Legend and of Wanda Sykes– was aired a year ago. You can see it here: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots/.  You can fast forward along to about 17 minutes in when Gates tells Legend the harrowing story of how his ancestors, the Polly family, who were legally free in Ohio, were kidnapped from their home and removed to Kentucky and Virginia. They were sold into slavery. It was unbelievable when Gates explained it to Legend in “Finding Your Roots.” But now with “12 Years a Slave,” sadly quite believable.

Indeed, the story of the Polly family’s journey culminated in an order from the Governor of Ohio in 1860– nine years after eight Polly children were abducted, separated and sold. A record of the order still exists– http://lawrencecountyohio.com/black/stories/pollynegro1.htm.

The whole thing is amazing. But I think now we’re going to be hearing more of these stories.

This is how it reads:

Ironton Register, February 2, 1860

The following is a copy of Gov. Dennison’s Message relating the Polly Negro Family, kidnapped from this county in 1851, passage (or message) in answer to a resolution offered in the House by Representative Nigh, of this county:
Jan. 24th, 1860}
To The House of Representatives:

I have received a copy of a resolution, passed by your honorable body, requesting the Governor to transmit to you “all information in his possession, relating to the Polly negroes kidnapped from the county of Lawrence, and now held in slavery in the State of Virginia or elsewhere, together with the amount of all sums of money expended in the prosecution of suits for their reclamation, and for other purposes connected therewith, when and to whom paid,” etc. I

have the honor to state that on the 27th of February, 1851, the General Assembly passed a preamble and resolution in these words: “WHEREAS, It has been represented to this General Assembly that on the night of the sixth of January last, seven of the children and one of the grand-children of Peyton Polly, all said to be free colored persons, residing in Lawrence county, in this State were forcibly seized and carried into Kentucky, and are therein now held in slavery contrary to law:


It is represented that said Peyton Polly is poor and unable to raise the pecuniary means necessary to procure counsel to test in a Court of law the right of his said children to their liberty. Therefore. Resolved, That the Governor be, and he is hereby authorized to inquire into the facts of said alleged seizure and abduction, and if, on such inquiry, he shall become satisfied that said representations are probably true, that he shall employ counsel and adopt such other measures as shall conduce most especially to restore said persons to their liberty, and that the cost and expenses thereof shall be paid from his contingent fund.”

Under this resolution Gov. Wood appointed Joel W. Wilson, of Seneca county, as the agent of the State to take the case in hand. The family, it appeared, were originally slaves in Kentucky, and were owned by one David Campbell, of Pike co., in that State. — On the 20th Jan. 1849, Campbell and his wife executed their bill of sale to Douglas Polly one black woman named Violet, aged 38 years, one black boy named Dugel, aged 15 years, one black boy named Dayton, aged 13 years, one black boy named Harrison, aged 10 years, one black boy named Nelson, aged 8 years, one named Aaron, aged 4 years, one black girl, aged 6 years, and one black girl, aged 2 years.

The Douglas Polly to whom the sale was made was a free man of color, who had been a slave of David Polly, but was duly emancipated and set free by his last will and testament, so entered of record in Pike county, Kentucky. These slaves were sold to him for the purpose of being brought to Ohio and emancipated. It appears also that after the sale the former owner removed from Kentucky to Virginia, leaving them in the possession of the said Douglas.

The creditors of the former owner instituted proceedings against said Douglas to set aside said sale on the ground that it was made to defraud creditors, and subject said negroes to the payment of their former owner’s debts. Whereupon the said Douglas, who has acquired some $1,500, paid off all the claims against them, and was permitted to remove them personably to Ohio, where he brought them and set them free.

Sometime after they were brought to this State and set free, their former owner executed another bill of sale, for them, to a man named Justice, who resided in Lawrence county, Kentucky, which said bill of sale expressed as a consideration the sum of one thousand dollars; but it was supposed that was paid, and that said Justice was to have a part of them if he succeeded in getting them. Upon said second bill of sale being executed to said Justice, he came into Ohio to reclaim them as fugitive slaves, but did not succeed.

The matter rested in this way until 1850, when a body of armed men came into this State in the night, and kidnapped all of the children, leaving the father and mother behind. One of said children, thus kidnapped was an infant, born in the state of Ohio.

— Messrs. Loughborough and Ballard of Louisville, and James Harlan, of Frankfort, were employed by Mr. Wilson as attorney and counsel in Kentucky, and after protracted litigation in various courts of that State, four of the negroes were declared free by the Court of Appeal in 1853, and returned to their friends in Ohio.

The other four had been sold into Virginia before process could be served in Kentucky. One has since died, and to one of the survivors a child has been born, making the number in Virginia still four.

In behalf of these, Messrs. McComas and Samuels of Barboursville; and Mr. Fry of Wheeling, and Mr. Laidly, of Guyandott, were employed as attorney and counsel, and after a similar litigation they were declared free by the court of Cabell county.

This judgment, however, was reversed by the court of appeals, on the ground that Wayne county being the actual residence of the defendants, Cabell county had no jurisdiction in the case. Here follows a statement of the items of expense incurred in the prosecution of these suits, amounting, in the aggregate to $3,257.75.

The Message concludes as follows:
“The litigation had been renewed in Wayne county, and when my predecessor addressed a letter in March, 1856, to Mr. Laidly, who had been represented to him as well qualified in all respects for the conduct of the case, inquiring into its condition and the probable expenses of prosecuting it to a conclusion, Mr. Laidly replied that no additional counsel would be thereafter required, that all future expenses, including the expenses of taking deposition and compensation for his own services would not exceed two hundred dollars, and that a favorable decision might be expected the following August.

The sum of one hundred dollars was accordingly remitted to him on account, but the litigation was not brought to the expected termination. Subsequently other letters were received from Laidly, asking a further remittance, and asking the employment of additional counsel; and finally, in November last, a letter was addressed by direction of the Governor, to Mr. Leete, of Ironton, proposing to pay his expenses if he would go to Virginia and ascertain the exact condition of the case, and the probabilities of success in its further prosecution.

To this letter Mr. Leete replied on the 25th of November, stating that he would, at his earliest convenience, go to Barboursville and collect the facts, and report them for information of the Executive. He also expressed the opinion that some additional counsel should be employed in it. He suggested that Geo. W. Summers, of Kanawha, be retained. Since this letter from Mr. Leete nothing further has been heard from him in regard to the case.

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Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
5 replies to this post
  1. Sorry Roger, John Legend is not a “legend” within the R&B community, he’s more aligned with pop radio than R&B radio listeners, he may have the #9 song but he’s not all that with the black community. They don’t talk about him nor do listeners request him. hahahha Robin Thicke is more black than John Legend.

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