This is the last post in the three-part series about the Polley Freedom Case. It shares some interesting discoveries and coincidences about an extended family that was unknown to me until just a few weeks ago. The process of discovery has been illuminating and impowering.

The descendants of Peyton Polley (1789-1884), my third great grandfather, must number in the hundreds. He had 17 children. His son William (1850-1910), my grandfather’s grandfather, had 11 children. My great grandfather, Ira Polley (1873-1944) had seven children. And that’s is just one branch of the family tree. Large family sizes seemed common in the family in those days.

Grandmother Christmas

From when I was very young, I have memories of my mother talking about “Grandmother Christmas.” I have no recollection of meeting Grandmother Christmas even though our lives overlapped for about 10 years. Her name was so unusual and the stories about her were so enjoyable that I wasn’t sure she actually existed.

In fact, Helen M. J. Christmas (1877-1963) was Ira Polley’s wife, my grandfather’s mother. Grandmother Christmas — I loved that name and the stories my mother told. It is good to know she was a real person.

Richard A. Polley

While doing a bit of random searching on the internet, I was astonished to come across this photo.


Investigation revealed that Polley Field is a sports complex in Nelsonville, a small town in southeastern Ohio not far from Lawrence County where the Polleys settled in 1849. The field is named for Richard Alan “Ritchie” Polley (1948-1968).

Ritchie earned the respect and admiration of his home town as an exceptional student and star tailback on the high school football team. He was a member of the Nelsonville High School Class of 1967.

Richard A. Polley

Ritchie Polley joined the Marines on November 30, 1967. He was killed in action on June 4, 1968 eight days after arriving in Vietnam. Polley field was named in his honor a few years later.

Below is a portion of a story about the rededication of Polley Field that appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of the Nelsonville Messenger. It describes his service and death in Vietnam:

Polley entered the Marines during the height of the Vietnam War and, during his first full combat mission in the Quang Nam Province, gave his life for his country on June 4, 1968, after his unit took heavy fire. He was just 20 years old.

A local publication in existence at the time, the Nelsonville Tribune, and its editor, Dick Kunzman, wrote about what losing Polley meant to a Southeast Ohio community during a war where the average age of the American soldier was 19.

“At 20, he (Polley) had never had a girl, never owned a car, never cast a ballot. He had not even been in Vietnam long enough for his mother to have received a letter from him,” Kunzman wrote in his editorial about fallen Vietnam heroes called “One by One, to Wondering Sleep.”

A virtual Vietnam wall, offered by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, contains remembrances of Polley delivered by fellow Marines. One of them, an officer W. Killian, wrote that the the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines were part of Operation Mameluke in May and June of 1968, south of Da Nang in the Quang Nam Province. They had established some night positions including hillsides when they came under fire from the North Vietnamese equipped with concussion grenades and small arms fire. Polley and five others were killed in action, and 21 were wounded.

An entry from then-Cpl. Tom Keltner stated of Polley, “I carried you to the helicopter that I was crew chief on, (and) tried to breathe air into your lungs as we rushed you to medivac hospital. I was not successful, for this I am very sorry. You are not forgotten.”

Pvt Richard A. “Ritchie” Polley, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st MARDIV (Rein), III MAF, FMFPAC. 

I hadn’t heard of Ritchie Polley until a couple of weeks ago. He was the cream of the crop, the best of the best. I wish I had known him. He will never be forgotten.

John Rogers Stephens (John Legend)

Stephens was born in 1978 in Springfield, Ohio and traces his ancestry to Peyton Polley. Follow this link to see a 4-minute PBS video where John Legend and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., explore his relationship to Peyton Polley.

He is a popular singer, songwriter and producer. Like many Black musicians and singers, Stephens got his musical start in church at a young age. His mother sang and directed the choir, and his grandmother was the church organist. His father was a factory worker and also played the drums.

As John Legend, he has racked up a string of music awards as long as my arm. To name only a few, in 2014, he won the Oscar and Golden Globe Award for Best Original Song “Glory” from the movie Selma. So far, he has been nominated for 34 Grammy Awards (if I’ve counted correctly) and won 12 Grammys including Best New Artist and Best R&B Album Get Lifted in 2006 and Best R&B Album Bigger Love in 2021. Also in 2021, his duet with Carrie Underwood “Hallelujah” won the CMT Award for Video of the Year.

2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party Hosted By Radhika Jones - Arrivals
John Legend (Photo by Daniele Venturelli/WireImage)

Only a very small group of performers has won all of the big awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony (EGOT). John Legend was the first Black member of that prestigious club. He completed it in 2018 with his Emmy win in the category Live Variety Special for his producer role on NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Stephens is smart as well as incredibly talented. He was the Salutatorian of his high school class, turned down Harvard to attend the University of Pennsylvania, and graduated magna cum laude among his other academic honors.

Tommy Polley

Tommy Polley was born in 1978 and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. He played football for Florida State University and then played in the National Football League for six years. He captained the FSU defense when it played for the national championship in 2001.

Tommy Polley Baltimore Sun Photo

I remember watching him play and wondering if we were related. It turns out that he is also one of Peyton Polley’s descendants.

Tommy Polley’s son, Tyler, currently plays basketball for the University of Connecticut and is a deadly outside shooter.

UConn Athletics photo 

The Polley Name

Polley can be spelled several ways.  In early records it is sometimes spelled Polly.  Curiously, David Polley’s will is filed in the Pike County Courthouse under “David Pauley.”  With high levels of illiteracy in early America, the correct original spelling is unclear.  One of Peyton Polley’s children was named Polly.  It seems unlikely that her name was Polly Polly, but you never know.     

Wanda Sykes 

Wanda Sykes was born in 1964 in Portsmouth, Virginia.  She is an Emmy Award winning actress, stand-up comedian and writer.  I mention her because she and John Legend were featured in the same episode of Finding Your Roots.  Amazingly, her free ancestors were traced all the way back to 1683, almost 100 years before the American Revolution.  The reason for their freedom caught my attention. 

Wanda Sykes

 In 1683, Elizabeth Banks, a free White woman and indentured servant, gave birth to a child  fathered by a slave.  Sex between a Black man and a White woman was illegal.  (Black women were fair game for Whites.)  The record of Elizabeth Bank’s prosecution still exists. 

The status of a mixed-race child depended solely on the race assigned to the mother.  That is why Sykes’ ancestors were free all the way back to 1683 and Peyton and his wife, Violet Justice Polley, were slaves even though their fathers were White.  David Justice, the man  who arranged the Polley kidnappings, was the half brother of Violet Polley.  The kidnapped children were his nieces and nephews.  It makes no sense.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase was one of the Ohio governors who championed the Polley cases in Kentucky and Virginia.  He is a fascinating and important historical figure.  This post has exceeded the desired length so I’ll save his discussion for later.  

Final Thoughts

As far as family history, this is just the tip of the iceberg.  I look forward to learning more.  I tried to avoid being long winded and boring and in that endeavor have failed.   

I, however, am unapologetic because the Polley family history is an important representation of what Black families have been forced to endure during their struggle for basic human dignity and the liberties and privileges promised to all Americans.  The struggle spans generations and continues.  It is essential that our real history is known by all if America to ever expects to reach its potential.  

Last, as one whose family has suffered the pain of involuntary separation, I need to say one more thing.  The practice of separating families crossing our southern border during the last administration was flat out inhumane.  There was no process for reuniting them.  Treating people (slaves, illegal immigrants or anybody else) like a litter of puppies is a crime against humanity.

Contrast that with the current situation in Ukraine.  The refugees aren’t required to produce visas or have court hearings.  The Ukrainians aren’t being sent back and they shouldn’t be.  Many at our southern border are fleeing life-threatening situations, poverty and undemocratic governments that are just as bad as living under Putin’s rule. 

Switching gears, have you ever discovered information that led to relatives you never knew about?  Do you think there are any advantages to knowing your family’s history or any disadvantages if you don’t know it?  Please share your thoughts.

Thanks for getting through a long post!