Who is Priscilla? A quest to find answers after 250 years and thousands of miles
By Ron Allen
The Martin family knows something about themselves that few if any families will ever learn about their past. They're able to trace their ancestry back hundreds of years to a little girl. Her name was Priscilla. She was 10 years old. Priscilla was kidnapped in Sierra Leone west Africa in 1756, and shipped to Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived her entire life as a slave.
Priscilla's spirit is alive and well in her modern day relatives, the Martins, who live not far from where Priscilla toiled on a plantation. They are believed to be the only African Americans with such a detailed link to the past. And what's even more remarkable is that this centuries old family tree, spreading over at least 7 generations, is documented on paper. For most African American families there is no record of where their ancestors came from, and almost no chance of finding one.
The Martins have never shared their story on national television. It's actually the story of how two American families were brought together by a 10-year-old girl.
NBC News first discovered the story in Sierra Leone, while doing a series of pieces for NBC Nightly News, about Americans trying to make a difference in that desperately poor nation, still struggling with the aftermath of a long brutal civil war.
Our journey took us to a place called Bunce Island. That's where we visited the ruins of one of the most notorious slave trading fortresses the world has ever know, a transit point for tens of thousands of slaves sent to America.
An American history professor named Joe Opala had launched a project to try to save this incredible piece of history. It's been neglected for decades, completely uninhabited since the slave trade ended. It is a place so remote, so forgotten, few people ever travel there. Opala believes African Americans have more ancestral ties to that part of Africa than any other place in the world.
That's where we first heard about Priscilla. We followed the route she took aboard a slave ship to the port of Charleston, South Carolina. And that's where we met Edward Ball, a descendant of the family that owned Priscilla and some 4,000 other men, women, and children, on more than 20 plantations, for nearly 200 years.
It was all chronicled in ten thousand pages of "property records," handed down by the Ball family through the years, probably the most intact and detailed collection of documents from that era. Most of the records of slave owners were burned or destroyed as the South was losing the Civil War. They list the names, births, deaths, and marriages of the people the Balls owned. Looking deep in that treasure trove of records, scribbled on parchment paper with a quill and ink, many wrapped and bound in pigskin, Ball was able to piece together Priscilla's family tree. She lived to age 61 and had ten children. And they had children, who had children. It was all there.
Eventually, the trail led to a woman named Thomalind Martin Polite, her husband Antwan and their two children. They're a very unassuming couple who both work in the public school system. Thomalind is Priscilla's great-great-great-great seventh generation grand-daughter. And to this day, Thomalind is still trying to comprehend the magnitude of that.
For Edward Ball, finding Priscilla and then finding the Martin's was a journey for redemption. He's extremely uncomfortable, even tortured by what he's learned about how his family made its massive fortune, exploiting so many innocent human beings. But such was the practice of the day.
The Martins are a very private family. Thomalind has only made a handful of public appearances to discuss her incredible family story, and share what it means to her, and families everywhere that would love to know who they are and where they come from. From Bunce Island to Charleston, South Carolina, from the 1700's to the present, it is a family's journey to discover a distant but ever present ancestor, Priscilla.