Reconnecting Roots. A Journey of Rediscovery at the International African American Museum

Going to the IAAM was surreal for the entire family. It was a humbling experience to see our family displayed among so many important figures in history. We knew it made our ancestors proud that their rare story was shared and will continue to be shared for generations to come. It is difficult to put into words all of the emotions we felt that day. We would love to give special thanks to the IAAM, Edward Ball, and everyone who has made this possible. Thomalind, Antawn, Martin, and Faith Polite.

Gazing at a photograph adorning the walls of the International African American Museum’s Family History section, I observed a palpable bewilderment in the onlooker, her attention shifting from the image to the woman posing beneath the collage. “Yes!” I affirmed with a nod, acknowledging that the woman was indeed Thomalind Polite, the carrier of her ancestor’s story.

In the heart of Charleston, on Gadsden Wharf, a poignant tale of reconnection unfolded at the International African American Museum (IAAM). Descendants spanning seven and eight generations embarked on a pilgrimage over the weekend, tracing their roots to Priscilla, a ten-year-old girl forcibly taken from Sierra Leone in 1756 and sold in Charles Towne, SC that same year.


Priscilla Homecoming

Edward Ball, author of “Slaves in the Family,” meticulously traced his family’s plantation record to Mr. Thomas Martins in Charleston, SC. Anthropologist Joseph Opala uncovered the ship that brought Priscilla from Bunce Island. Utilizing this information, a search in the Transatlantic Slave Voyages Database revealed it as the last ship departing the Sierra Leone Estuary in 1756, carrying 71 captives who arrived at the port of Charles Towne, SC. Elias Ball, Edward Ball’s ancestor, purchased at least five young Africans that day, including Priscilla, believed to be about 10 years old.


On a quiet Sunday afternoon, the Polite family—Antawn, Thomalind, Faith, and Martin—embarked on a private outing. We drove from their home in N. Charleston to the Museum and quickly made our way to the front desk.  Guided by Research Assistant Darius Brown, we headed straight to the Center for Family History, our primary focus. Interestingly, Darius’ exhibit coincidentally neighbored Thomalind’s. Serendipity, perhaps.


Wasting no time, the Polite family approached the exhibit. I discreetly recorded a video capturing their initial reactions. Each document and relic became a portal to the past, offering glimpses into the unimaginable hardships Priscilla endured. In that room, one could imagine the long walk from a village in Sierra Leone, the harrowing Middle Passage, the brutality on rice plantations, and Priscilla’s enduring legacy through eight generations with Faith and Martin Polite.


The atmosphere in the museum’s genealogy department was emotionally charged. Thomalind, Faith, and Martin, seventh and eighth generation descendants, shared their story on the wall with Antawn. Who is affectionately known in Sierra Leone as “Priscilla Man” when they traveled to that country in 2005.  Priscilla’s narrative came alive through meticulously preserved records and artifacts, enriched by the presence of her living descendants.


“Uncle Amadu, there’s one thing, though…” with a stark look on her face, “…do you think we can ask them to change just one photo?” “Which one?” I inquired, understanding why when she pointed it out. A photo of a younger Faith didn’t align with her at age twenty-two, about to graduate Summa Cum Laude as an engineer from “State” (South Carolina State), where her mom and grandma, and grandaunt even, attended college.


Thomalind, humble in jeans, tennis shoes, and her favorite windbreaker jacket, quietly entered and did her thing. If not for Research Assistant Darius recognizing us, we might have gone in and out unnoticed.  She is like that every day.  She even drove all of us to the museum, to dinner and back at their home.  I got big chunks of two birthday cakes as we celebrated her big birthday weekend.

The Polites marveled at the pieces related to their story, from artifacts on Bunce Island to historical records of the transatlantic slave trade. This story is unique, surviving based on ship records, sales records, plantation records, and even birth and death records. An artifact, a photo featuring Thomalind (today’s Priscilla) and President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, documented their reception as national guests in 2005, in the film “Priscilla’s Legacy!”


The journey through the IAAM was more than a physical exploration; it was a temporal odyssey for the Polite family, encountering narratives of triumph and tribulation. But it was in the Center for Family History that the highlight of this visit unfolded—the rediscovery of Priscilla in meticulously curated records. As we were led to it, a profound hush fell over the room. For the Polites, seeing Priscilla’s name etched in history wasn’t merely an academic exercise but a profound affirmation of their existence.

As the visit concluded, the Polites left the IAAM with a profound sense of gratitude. This blog not only documents their journey but also calls for others to embark on similar quests for self-discovery. The Polites invite readers to contemplate the intersections of history, identity, and resilience—a poignant reminder that, even in the face of unspeakable atrocities, the human spirit has the capacity to endure, reconnect, and build anew.