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Exhibit traces slave’s still-growing family tree

A exhibit at the New-York Historical Society traces the history of an African slave and generations of her descendants.
/ Source: The Associated Press

It’s the kind of paper trail that may never be discovered again — a 249-year-old chain of records that stretches from Sierra Leone in 1756 to modern-day South Carolina, tracing the history of an African slave and generations of her descendants.

The documents are showcased in a new exhibit. “Finding Priscilla’s Children: The Roots of American Slavery” opened Tuesday at the New-York Historical Society and will run through March 5; it is a corollary to the society’s much larger show, “Slavery in New York,” which opened in October.

The type of documents that make up the paper trail — ship records, plantation records — usually haven’t survived, said Joseph Opala, a historian who put the small show together.

“It’s an accident of historical preservation,” he said. “I don’t think it will happen again.”

The one-room display starts with documents concerning the Hare, a Newport, R.I., ship. The vessel traveled down the African coast in 1756, looking for slaves. Among the records in the show is a letter from the ship’s captain to its owners, discussing the number of slaves he had acquired.

The exhibit also includes a record of the slave sale that was held in Charleston, S.C., when the ship was back in this country. One document records that South Carolina plantation owner Elias Ball II bought five of the children on the ship, including a 10-year-old girl. In his own plantation records, Ball noted the sale and the name he gave the child, Priscilla.

A descendant of the plantation owner, Edward Ball, researched his family notes to trace Priscilla’s progeny, Opala said, and found some living relatives. Opala, knowing about Ball’s efforts, worked backward from the plantation records to find the ship records in the historical society’s archives.

“I really don’t think it’s ever happened that you have an unbroken record literally from the day the slave ship left Africa,” he said.

Opala arranged for Priscilla’s seventh-generation descendent, Thomalind Martin Polite, to visit Sierra Leone this past spring. Photographs and a video from the trip also are included in the show.