Rock Center   |  February 15, 2012

Priscilla’s Story: Family traces roots to slave island

NBC News Correspondent Ron Allen journeys to Bunce Island off the coast of Sierra Leone.  Bunce Island was once a slave trading fortress, which served as the beginning of a tragic journey for tens of thousands of Africans transported across the Atlantic into slavery in the United States. One African-American family, the Martins, was able to trace its roots two and a half centuries back to the island and to a little girl named Priscilla who was sold into slavery when she was 10 years old. 

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: called America 's original sin. While we're all Americans now, back then Africans were brought here to work against their will. After emancipation, that's when the roots of so many African-American families got fuzzy and jumbled up and lost, except for this story you're about to hear. The one case anyone knows where a family 's roots can be traced from right now, present day America , all the way back. It's thanks really to a little girl who paid a terrible price, and tonight Ron Allen tells us Priscilla 's story.

RON ALLEN: Two and a half centuries ago, thousands of miles across the Atlantic , a young girl was kidnapped and held captive in Sierra Leone , West Africa , on an island so remote, so forgotten, few people ever travel there.

Mr. JOE OPALA: It is literally a ghost town. The impact emotionally on people who see it is just extraordinary.

ALLEN: Our guide is historian Joe Opala . Oh, I see this.

Mr. OPALA: 1796 .

ALLEN: He spent much of his life trying to learn what happened to that little girl , and so many prisoners just like her.

Mr. OPALA: Negotiations for the purchase of slaves would have begun right here.

ALLEN: He took us to a place called Bunce Island , and the ruins of one of the most notorious slave trading fortresses the world has ever known. This is the doorway into the slave quarters?

Mr. OPALA: Yeah, into both slave quarters, men...

ALLEN: Men.

Mr. OPALA: ...and men on this side, and women and children on the this side. So we're going into the men's yard here. In the place where we're standing here, it could hold between two and 300 men, and that the men were chained together in circles of 10 people each to prevent them from climbing over the walls. They would go through this door first.

ALLEN: Tens of thousands of slaves were shipped from Bunce Island directly to South Carolina and Georgia , including that little girl . On a ship called the Hare , her name in the slave trader 's log was Priscilla . She was 10 years old.

Mr. OPALA: We know who sold Priscilla . We know who bought her. We know how much was paid for her.

ALLEN: Opala had an astonishing trail to follow. Tracing Priscilla 's voyage to Charleston , and what's left of an old rice plantation called Comingtee . Edward Ball , writer and teacher, is a descendant of the family that owned this plantation and some 20 others. He discovered an extraordinary record.

Mr. EDWARD BALL: "June 30th, 1756 ."

ALLEN: One that very few African-Americans have.

Mr. BALL: "I bought four boys and two girls."

ALLEN: A paper trail to their past. Ball 's family kept probably the most extensive slave owner 's property records still in existence, 10,000 pages.

Mr. BALL: "These Negroes underwritten had blankets."

ALLEN: Details about the births, deaths, marriages of some 4,000 men, women and children the Balls owned.

Mr. BALL: "Israel, Black Jack , Quaco, Priscilla ."

ALLEN: Including Priscilla .

Mr. BALL: Because Priscilla was a girl, I could almost sense this abandoned child, and it moved me to see if I could make sense of her story.

ALLEN: Ball became tormented as he spent years immersed in the lives of his ancestors. He felt accountable and wanted to do something for the families that his family enslaved. This was a place a lot of people didn't want you to go.

Mr. BALL: Yeah.

ALLEN: You're opening up old wounds.

Mr. BALL: Yeah.

ALLEN: You're airing dirty laundry , literally the family 's dirty laundry ?

Mr. BALL: Yeah. It was a good way of getting emotions on the table. It's like a wound that if you cut it open and you get the poisons out, then maybe the wound can heal better.

ALLEN: And that's why he grew more and more obsessed with that little girl , Priscilla . He learned she had 10 children, lived to age 65.

Mr. BALL: The records were good. I could see who her children were and her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren.

ALLEN: Lattice, Priscilla 's daughter was born.

ALLEN: Remarkably Ball went further, piecing together Priscilla 's entire family tree . It lead him to a retired schoolteacher names Thomas Martin , and then to his daughter, Thomalind Martin Polite , the great-great-great, seventh generation granddaughter of Priscilla . The Martins are believed to be the only African-American family able to trace their ancestry so far back, in such detail on paper. When you think of Priscilla , who was this person?

Ms. THOMALIND MARTIN POLITE: Oh, my God. She was a strong, resilient person is how I describe her. I just couldn't imagine a 10-year-old little girl being kidnapped, taken away from everything that she knows. The only words I can describe are strong, resilient, courageous.

ALLEN: Years after her father first told her of her link to Priscilla , Thomalind and her husband, Antwan , had the almost unheard of opportunity to travel back through her family history to Sierra Leone . The government had learned of her story and invited her to her ancestral home.

Ms. POLITE: Thank you.

ALLEN: And Joe Opala , the historian who has spent years exploring the history of the slave trade from Bunce Island , was there to meet her.

Ms. POLITE: I wish that my father, who started this, could have been here with me, and I vow to represent him and represent my family and represent Priscilla . And I don't think I can say anymore right now. Thank you. That was mind blowing, to be referred to as a little girl who really did exist, you know, who is my ancestor, and to know that the people of Sierra Leone were seeing her spirit. It was sincere, it was real. Just to believe that, you know, Priscilla was here. I'm actually here where she was.

ALLEN: And, of course, she just had to see for herself that powerful and disturbing place, Bunce Island .

Ms. POLITE: Thank you.

ALLEN: Opala took her to the exact spot where his research suggests Priscilla would have been held.

Mr. OPALA: This is the women's and children's area. We cannot rule out that Priscilla was imprisoned in this room. If it's true then they most likely would have taken her first out the door we just came in.

Ms. POLITE: I felt a mix of emotions. I felt, you know, sadness. I felt loneliness, you know, that, you know, gosh, she might have been here by herself. I felt anger, you know, that this happened.

ALLEN: Edward Ball believes as many as 100,000 African- Americans are descendants of slaves his ancestors owned, just like Thomalind and her family . What did you feel like you were giving them?

Mr. BALL: I wanted to give something back, some token, some acknowledgment. Some acknowledgment of what they'd been through.

Ms. POLITE: Like my grandmother always told me, you have to embrace the things that have happened in the past, good and bad, and learn from them so that you can understand the present day and prepare for your future. They gave me this like the very first or second day.

ALLEN: These days Thomalind and her family lead a very private life , for the most part, staying out of the public spotlight, always mindful of their incredible family story.

Ms. POLITE: There are times when I get discouraged with different things that are going on in my life, and I really do stop and I say to myself, come on, Thomalind , look at your situation and look at what your great-great-great-great-great grandmother endured. That strength is passed down definitely through the generations and I have to display that.

WILLIAMS: What a powerful story. Ron , we talk about Black History Month , which we're in the middle of, this is black history .

ALLEN: Mm-hmm.

WILLIAMS: How is this the only one documented thread all the way through?

ALLEN: Well, it's the Ball family papers. It seems to be the most intact collection of papers from that era. So many slave owners burned their papers, destroyed them during the Civil War because they didn't want to get caught with them. The Balls were meticulous record keepers. And these are the birth certificates, the marriage certificates that so many other people have that black people didn't have. We were property back then before emancipation. That's the key to it. And the Martins are talking about this for the first time now because they feel more comfortable with all this. They're a very private family . They've known this for some time, but this is the first time they're sharing this with the public, and that trip to Sierra Leone . They have young children. They didn't want to be icons. They have a very rare story, and now they're really ready to step forward and share it.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for telling it. Ron Allen here with us.