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Polley v. Ratcliff: A New Way to Address an Original Sin?

31 Pages Posted: 14 Jan 2013 Last revised: 29 Aug 2014

Atiba R. Ellis

West Virginia University - College of Law

Date Written: November 27, 2012


This essay recites the history of the Polley v. Ratcliff litigation and interrogates its relevance for modern considerations of racial inequality in America. The Polley case began in 1850s with the wrongful kidnapping of the children of Mr. Peyton Polley, an emancipated African slave who lived in Ohio. The litigation continued from 1851 to 1859 without clear resolution. Although this incident has been discussed at length by historians, the litigation itself came to a remarkable conclusion on April 6, 2012. On that day, some 162 years after this Dred Scott-era kidnapping, Judge Darrell Pratt of the Circuit Court of Wayne County, West Virginia, entered a decree declaring that Mr. Polley wrongfully kidnapped children — Harrison, Louisa, and Anna — “were, and are, FREE PERSONS as of March 22, 1859."

This declaration represented a monumental historical moment in West Virginia history, and it represents, as this essay will argue, an opportunity to consider the question of what our societal response to slavery and racism has been over time and what it ought to be in the twenty-first century. The essay considers the various modes through which Americans look at the history of slavery and race-race consciousness, racial reparations, and post racialism — and then it argues that the Polley litigation represents a different model for considering the American history of race, a model akin to truth and reconcilliation.

Keywords: Polley, West Virginia, history, legal history, critical race theory, postracialism, reparations, truth and reconcilliation

Suggested Citation

Ellis, Atiba R., Polley v. Ratcliff: A New Way to Address an Original Sin? (November 27, 2012). West Virginia Law Review, Vol. 115, No. 2, 2012; WVU Law Research Paper No. 2012-19. Available at SSRN:

Atiba R. Ellis (Contact Author)

West Virginia University - College of Law ( email )

Box 6130
Morgantown, WV West Virginia 26506
United States

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