An American story

February is Black History Month


BlackHistoryMonthJo Polk-Matthews lives in Elk Rapids – on Traverse Street with her son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter. She works for her son at Heartbeat Power Products in east Elk Rapids. I first met her there, and I now see her at cantata rehearsals, middle school projects and programs, dinner parties and out walking, usually in warmer weather than we have now, along our Village byways.

Jo has a remarkable personal history, of which a portion is particularly relevant in February, Black History Month. As she told me recently, “My father’s side of the family has JoPolkMatthews2been traced back to our pre-Civil War Freedom Papers and I have copies of the papers as well as other genealogical material to share.” That statement has spawned this introductory article as well as a possible collaboration with Elk Rapids Schools to tell more. Here is just an introduction to a part of Jo’s American story.

The Freedom Papers

On file in The New York Public Library are the Smiley-Polk Family Documents.

Of interest are the freedom papers of Jim, Amey and Judith Smellie (sic, later Smiley) attesting to their free emancipated status (1839), following the death of their master, Thomas Smelly, in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. (Schomburg Center Catalog, 2003, NYPL)

A Portion of Jim’s Freedom Papers

Jimmy's Papers restored 2

Her Story Continues

The ancestors of the Polk Family, Jim and Amey, their daughter Judah and her husband Kit along with their children, upon reaching the age of twenty-one, were emancipated in 1840. This occurred one and one-half years after the death of their master, plantation owner Thomas Smelly, in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. The newly-freed Smelly family left Virginia that same year, according to the law prohibiting freed slaves to remain in the state more than one year, and migrated to New Jersey. (Schomburg Center Catalog, 2003, NYPL)

In 1993, Helen Haverty King published the definitive history of Isle of Wight County. Her account: “The Smiley slaves have nine generations of descendants now. The patriarch must surely be Dr. Charles C. Polk, 95 years old in April 1987, with a lengthy list of honors and accomplishments, who is still practicing medicine in Roselle, N.J.” (Historical Notes on Isle of Wight County, Virginia, Helen Haverty King, 1993)

Here is just a partial list of Dr. Polk’s many accomplishments:

  • Established the Roselle Negro Health Club, Baby Keep Well Clinic and Social Disease Clinic
  • A founder of the Roselle branch of the NAACP, Urban League and Boy Scout Troop 57
  • B.S. and M.D. degrees from Howard University

His professional association memberships and honors are remarkable and varied.  (Worrall Community Newspapers, Vol. 74 NO. 19, Thursday, June 13, 1991)

Dr. Polk married Olive Mae Bond in 1923. He was the father of four girls: Carolyn P. Pryor, Gene Ann Horn, Barbara P. Riley and our own Josephine E. Polk-Matthews.

The Polk Sisters, 1952
(Jo is at far right)

Jim and Amey were her freed-slave ancestors. Dr. Charles Polk was Jo Polk-Matthews father.

Quite an American story. And there’s much more to tell….


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More than a lifelong connection to Elk Rapids
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One Response to An American story

  1. Pingback: Freedom Papers | Elk Rapids Live

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