Sierra Leone to South Carolina: Priscilla’s Homecoming

Part I: Series of Discoveries Link One Charleston Woman to a 10 Year Old Slave Girl Taken from Africa in 1756

by Andrew Jenner

Thomalind Polite was a 19-year-old sophomore in college when her father asked her to come home to hear some important family news. While working on a book, a writer named Edward Ball, descended from a prominent slave-owning South Carolina family, had used his ancestors’ plantation records to trace Polite’s family tree back nearly 250 years.

Ball visited Polite’s family, and there, in her parents’ living room, she heard him describe Priscilla, a 10-year-old slave girl whom one of Ball’s ancestors purchased in 1756. Priscilla was brought from Sierra Leone to Charleston, S.C., that year on a ship named The Hare and spent the rest of her life as a slave on the Ball plantations. Polite, Ball announced, was Priscilla’s great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter.

Image: Artist’s Conception of 10 Year Old Priscilla

Artist: Dana Coleman, Charleston, SC

Polite’s father had been trying for years to trace his ancestry; he was speechless and overjoyed to learn far more about his family than most African-Americans ever will, thanks to spotty, scattered or simply nonexistent records prior to the emancipation of American slaves. Polite herself, though, wasn’t terribly interested in history at the time.

“[I didn’t] really understand the significance of it,” says Polite, now a speech therapist for the Charleston County School District.

By the time Ball’s book, Slaves in the Family, was published in 1998, Polite’s father had passed away. During his final illness, she came to appreciate the value of her family’s link to Priscilla – about whom Polite assumed there was nothing more to learn.

In 2004, however, a historian named Joseph Opala made a remarkable discovery that shed even more light on Priscilla’s life and journey in captivity to America. While researching a book of his own, Opala – an expert on the Sierra Leonean slave trade – stumbled across a reference to the records kept at the New-York Historical Society of a ship named The Hare that docked in Charleston in 1756. Opala had guided Edward Ball on a visit to Sierra Leone and knew well the story linking Priscilla and Polite; with excitement, Opala realized this was the very ship on which Priscilla came to North America.

Within days, Opala went to New York, where he found extensive records from The Hare. Most astonishing was a detailed account of the sale of the ship’s human cargo.

“That was the shocker,” says Opala, who traced his finger down the document to a simple numeral, “2”, representing two girls whom Ball’s ancestor purchased from The Hare. “In my mind I said, ‘That’s Priscilla,’” remembers Opala, who sprung enthusiastically from his chair (the second girl, Belinda, disappears immediately afterwards from the Ball records).

The Hare’s papers substantiated the Ball family records, added new detail to Priscilla’s story and established what is believed to be the only unbroken, verifiable document trail directly linking one specific person taken in slavery from Africa to a living descendant in the United States.

“It’s just absolutely remarkable,” said Jane Aldrich, a research consultant and former archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society. “To my knowledge, this particular chain of proven genealogy … is the only one that exists.”

Opala immediately called Polite with news of the discovery, and told her the new details he’d gleaned from Priscilla’s life.

“I think I felt what my father felt that day,” says Polite, in turn speechless and overjoyed to learn yet more about her family’s past. “It’s an honor.”

And it was another beginning. Opala, who was also working on a documentary film about the slave trade, invited Polite to visit Sierra Leone, from where Priscilla had embarked for America. It would be a homecoming, after seven generations far out of sight and long out of touch.

Polite had never left the East Coast; this invitation seemed a worthy opportunity. They began to prepare for the trip to return Priscilla’s spirit home. NEXT: READ PART 2

Thomalind and Daughter Faith

Photo by Rick McKee

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