GRIMESLAND — A trio of distant cousins left behind the hustle and bustle of the city on the weekend before Christmas in search of a special gift they could find only in rural Pitt County.

Family heritage was the gift the cousins were seeking, and they found it by visiting several places, including the historic Galloway house on Mobley’s Bridge Road on Saturday.

Marques Harrington, a history teacher at North Pitt High School and local historian; Stephanie Bell-Rose, an attorney from Providence, R.I.; and Gregory Branch, a physician from Baltimore, Md., are descendants of enslaved people who lived at the Galloway house over 150 years ago.

The home, originally owned by John Galloway, is presently owned by Kelly and Dave Kurz, who purchased it 21 years ago. It is a large, two-story farmhouse designed in a Greek Revivalist style of architecture.

“We kind of feel like caretakers more than owners because it does have so much history,” Kelly said.

Before the Kurzes purchased it and fixed it up, the house was scheduled to be burned to train fire fighters, they said.

A shared ancestor

Harrington, Bell-Rose and Branch visited the Galloway house to tour it and to share stories about their shared ancestor, Almeta Galloway Tucker Hardy.

Harrington is a descendant of Almeta and her first husband, Hayward Tucker, who was enslaved at the Tucker plantation, which was located near Simpson, he said. Tucker escaped from there in 1863 and made his way on foot to Washington, N.C., where he enlisted in the Union Army and later died in the war.

Bell-Rose and Branch are descendants of Almeta and her second husband, Noah Hardy, who was enslaved at the Mills plantation, located in the Black Jack area and leased to John Galloway.

The cousins also made a stop at Black Jack Free Will Baptist Church. In the 1800s two of their ancestors had been married there. The original structure burned down long ago, but the cousins were able to tour the present building as well as the cemetery.

Standing in the foyer of the Galloway home on Saturday, Harrington read aloud from a copy of Almeta’s application for the military pension of her first husband, Hayward Tucker.

The document describes Almeta as a 45-year-old woman from Greenville, the widow of Tucker, who was a private in Company C, 37th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry, who died in the service of the United States at Wilmington on or about the 21st day of November 1865.

Documents like the application have helped the cousins put the pieces of their family puzzle together, especially with Harrington’s help. Other resources have included newspaper articles; obituaries; family albums; the online resource ancestry.com and Facebook, they said.

A special moment for Branch on this particular trip was finding a family connection while looking at a photo album belonging to Harrington.

In the album was an old photo of a woman who appeared to be middle-aged and whom Harrington identified as his great-grandmother. Sitting next to the woman in the photo were two girls.

Branch recognized them as his aunts at a young age. He had never made the connection between his aunts and Harrington’s great-grandmother before, but now he was seeing it for the first time through the photo album.

An early love of history

Harrington has had an interest in family history since he was about 6 years old, Bell-Rose said. He used to love listening to family members tell stories.

“He also has an encyclopedic knowledge of this area and especially the African-American history,” she said.

On Saturday Harrington shared some history about the daily lives of enslaved people.

Slaveholders could rent enslaved people to others, which provided income for the slaveholders, Harrington said. Husbands and wives often lived on separate plantations, but a husband could get a pass to visit his wife on Sundays.

When a slaveholder died, the enslaved people were considered property and there were “slave divisions” in the same way there were property divisions.

Harrington showed the group a Pitt County document for the Mills Family Slave Division that listed the prices for 20 people being sold after a slaveholder had died. The price for a 65-year-old man was $180 while the price for a 13-year-old boy was $1,000.

Harrington said he believes it is important that young African Americans understand their history.

The message they often hear from society is that their ancestors were savages from Africa and later sharecroppers in America, and now, as descendants, they are welfare-recipients, he said.

But that is not an accurate or complete narrative, Harrington said.

“I always knew I was more than what was presented,” he said.

As a history teacher, Harrington shows young African Americans how to dig into their own family histories.

The first step he tells them to take is to talk to older, living members of the family and hear their stories. Find out what associations and organizations they were a part of. That type of information helps reveal what was important to them and who they were as people, Harrington said.

In researching his own family’s history, after a lot of investigating, he came up with many names. His next step was to find living descendants of those names. It was through that search that he found Bell-Rose and Branch.

The legacy

Education and spirituality are two key elements of the legacy that their ancestors left for them, the cousins said.

Harrington is a professional educator, genealogical researcher and ordained minister; Bell-Rose holds three degrees from Harvard; and Branch is on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University.

The great-grandmother of Bell-Rose and Branch, Sarah Hardy, was an early member of Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church and a member of the first deaconess board of the congregation, which celebrated its 140th anniversary last month.

Sarah Hardy was the granddaughter of Almeta Hardy, Branch said.

“I think it’s just a wonderful feeling to know that she prayed to the same God that I pray to, the same God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who was the same yesterday as he is today...that’s just a beautiful thing to me, so to feel that is wonderful,” he said.

The cousins planned to attend church at Cornerstone on Sunday, making it the final stop on their heritage tour.

Bell-Rose said she found visiting the Galloway home to be a profoundly meaningful experience because she and her cousins were able to connect with the lives of their ancestors, who were very real people who lived a large part of their lives there under challenging conditions and yet were able to move forward and be highly productive as leaders in the community, starting churches and raising families.

“We’re proud of their experiences and their survival and their hearts ... I’m also very, very honored to be able to give them their due, that they are remembered, that they are valued and treasured even more so today after living here in the (1800s) ... that they’re so much alive to us,” Bell-Rose said.

Branch said the visit gave him an insight and a sense of wonder and connection to family members whom he did not know and that he realizes he stands on the shoulders of giants.

“I truly believe that I am the hope and dream that they’ve prayed for... (and) to be able to come back to Greenville, to see that my ancestors were (enslaved people) and to do that as a physician, I think, says a whole lot,” he said.

Karen Eckert can be reached at 252-329-9565 or at keckert@reflector.com.