KNOX Co., Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — Inside the walls of the Knox County Genealogy Library you can find the story of a woman named Polly Strong.
Polly was born into slavery in 1796. 10 years later, she was brought to Vincennes by her owner, who was an innkeeper named Hyacinthe Lasselle.
By Polly’s 20th birthday in 1816, Indiana became a state. According to the state’s constitution, slavery was not allowed.
“Indiana had its own battle for eliminating slavery. The original ordinance creating the Northwest territory said the territory northwest of the Ohio River would be free of slaves,” said historian, Richard Day.
But some slaveowners at the time, looked for a loophole.
“But then the territorial government said, ‘Oh no, no. What we meant was no new slaves. If you already have slaves we’re not going to interfere with the property rights. You can keep slaves. But you can’t bring any new ones in,'” Day said.
Therefore, Polly remained a slave illegally.
A young lawyer from New York names Amory Kinney learned of Polly and wanted to help get her justice.
He was astounded, surprised to see the contrary to the words of the state constitution [that] slavery was and still being practiced openly here in Vincennes. And so he initiated a lawsuit,” said Richard Day.
In 1820, Kinney and strong took her case to the Knox County Circuit Court.
The court ruled that she remained enslaved, but the fight didn’t stop there. They took it to the new Indiana State Supreme Court.
“The State Supreme Court, however, said the new state constitution quite clearly stated there shall be no slavery or involuntary servitude in the state. And they said Polly is quite clearly free,” Day said.
Polly Strong’s victory paved the way for another case, of a woman named Mary Clark.
“It was really something. It was akin to putting together one of the biggest puzzle’s you’ve ever seen,” said Eunice Trotter, the great-great-great granddaughter of Mary Clark.
Born a slave in 1801, Clark was brought to Vincennes from Kentucky in 1814. Her owner B.J. Harrison made her an indentured servant in 1815.
A year later, a man by the name of G.W Johnston bought her indenture for 20 years.
“The person would say ‘I have been freed by my master, but he has convinced me that it would be the height of ingratitude to walk away, so I’ve agreed to freely sign this indenture for x period of time. And at the end of this time, he will allow me to be free.’ And usually there was something in there about they would be given a suit of clothing and maybe some money, Like 20 dollars,” said Day.
But, indentured servitude was also illegal in Indiana.
So, Amory Kinney stepped in once again taking the case to court.
“In April 1821 the Knox County Circuit Court ruled against Mary Clark. So they took it to the state supreme court,” Day said.
Again, Indiana’s constitution ruled in their favor.
Between Amory Kinney, Polly Strong and Mary Clark, Indiana’s future was forever changed.
“She and Polly strong were pioneers in this ongoing struggle for freedom that still goes on til this day,” Day said.
“Amory Kinney gets nowhere near the notoriety and respect he should get. But he was definitely one of the early freedom fighters in Indiana,” said Trotter.
While much isn’t known about Polly’s life after freedom, Mary Clark went on to accomplish a lot. Including establishing Bethel AME church at Vincennes, Which no longer exists.
And her life was also put in a historical fiction book, written by Trotter.
“I could properly color her personality. I could frame her and give the impression of who I thought she was, based on DNA and that long line of women in our family. I don’t think she would be any different from how I am today or how my sisters might be,” Trotter said.
Mary Clark’s case has also been put into a documentary airing on WTIU.