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Shielded from sunlight since at least the 1920s, the black-and-white portraits had not faded: An African American woman stands draped in an elegant floor-length coat trimmed with a fur collar,

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Shielded from sunlight since at least the 1920s, the black-and-white portraits had not faded: An African American woman stands draped in an elegant floor-length coat trimmed with a fur collar,

Shielded from sunlight since at least the 1920s, the black-and-white portraits had not faded: An African American woman stands draped in an elegant floor-length coat trimmed with a fur collar, her head topped with a wide-brimmed dress hat.

A dapper capped man is wrapped in his tight jazz suit jacket, which is adorned with a tie pin and a kerchief in his breast pocket.

A mustachioed man in a tweed coat, vest, and high-collared shirt stares directly into the camera.

It must have been a special day in the lives of this family. At the time, African Americans in Edenton, just decades removed from being enslaved, still worked tirelessly as carpenters, bakers, and blacksmiths; fishermen, farmers, and midwives, with little time for rest.

The mantel inside the Robert Price House

The family photos in the Robert Price home received prominent placement on the original mantel. photograph by Chris Rogers

To have one’s picture taken was an honor, a formal occasion not to be taken lightly. So when the photos were developed and returned, they assumed a prominent place in the home, one befitting their dignity: the living room mantel.

Then, over time, whether by a brush of a shirt cuff or a nudge of a feather duster, the photos fell behind the mantel, not to be seen for 100 years.

The white paint on the two-story home on East Gale Street in Edenton had peeled like a bad sunburn. The metal roof had buckled. The screen door no longer fit its frame. But who among us wouldn’t look a tad frazzled after 130 years of heat and humidity, hurricanes and tornadoes and, yes, even a freak winter storm in 1927 that buried the town in 26 inches of snow?

The home’s bones were solid. Robert Price, the formerly enslaved man who built the house around 1886, made sure of that. The sawtooth cornice had all its teeth. The turned porch posts remained strong. And the gable ornament — a miniature steeple that, when the skies were right, seemed to puncture the clouds — still pointed to heaven.

Some people might have valued not the house but rather the land under it. Instead, Down East Preservation sensed possibility. “A ton of these houses, for whatever reason, have remained intact,” says Burton Swain, co-owner of the company. “It’s part of what has kept this town so beautiful.”

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The Edenton-based restoration company chose to try to return the Robert Price home to its original architectural splendor. Water had damaged the downstairs of the house, so when the preservationists began working in the living room, they had to pull a mantel away from a fireplace to repair the plaster and the mantel.

“It’s always fun when you remove a mantel,” says Dawson Tyler, the company’s founder. “That’s where you typically find the most interesting things, because it’s where they have fallen behind.”

Burton Swain, Dawson Tyler, and Briley Rascoe on the porch

From left: Burton Swain, Dawson Tyler, and Briley Rascoe with Down East Preservation help rescue and restore historic properties in Edenton. photograph by Chris Rogers

There were the photos, not just from the early 20th century, but even later. A Christmas card from what appears to be the 1970s features a girl of about 2 years old, carrying a black purse and wearing a summer dress, white socks, and black Mary Janes. She leans toward the camera, a saucy smile on her face, her brown-and-white dog panting beside her. The card reads: “Season’s Greetings Ruby and Clarence.”

“Putting something up on your mantel is a really special act,” says Briley Rascoe, the company’s chief marketing officer and design center manager. “To think that generations of these important people were put up there and slipped between the cracks, and we were lucky enough to find them.”

In the 1970s, East Gale Street remained a cultural and religious center for African Americans in Edenton. Just two doors down from the Price home, Kadesh A.M.E. Zion Church, which Down East is also restoring, served as a refuge for Black residents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s possible that Mary Williams, an evangelist from Norfolk, Virginia, had preached at Kadesh A.M.E. Behind the mantel in the Price home, Down East workers found a tattered page from a pamphlet suggesting that Williams may have led congregants in the 1905 hymn “The Storm Is Passing Over.”

“This is living history,” Tyler says. “You’re uncovering something that’s been lost to the ages, and it just is incredibly impactful.”

But who were the people in the family photos? Perhaps property records could reunite the portraits with their families.

The restoration of the 130-year-old Price house resulted in an exterior that looks much like it did when Robert Price built it. photograph by Chris Rogers

The deed history of the home reads like the Book of Genesis: Joseph Price, who had been enslaved, bought the lot for his son, Robert Price, one of 17 Black carpenters in Chowan County at the time of the 1880 census. In 1935, Robert handed down the home to Maria Price, who bequeathed it to Henry C. Bond. Henry sold the house in 1952 to Norfleet Williams Bonds Sr., who lived there with his wife, Rosa, for nearly 30 years until his passing. Norfleet was survived by Rosa; their son, Norfleet Williams Bonds Jr.; and their daughter, Christine Fleming — but Norfleet died without a will. Later that year, Norfleet Jr., Christine, and their spouses deeded the house to Rosa. When Rosa died, she bequeathed the home to several family members, including Norfleet Williams Bonds III. And when he passed in 2021, at age 89, his wife, Franceen; eight daughters and three sons; a sister; a nephew; 21 grandchildren; 27 great-grandchildren; and five great-great-grandchildren survived him.

Surely, of those 67 living family members, someone could say if the photos belonged to them.

A funeral home in Concord provided the last known number for Franceen.

Your call cannot be completed as dialed.

An afternoon spent falling down the rabbit hole of genealogy sites turned up several more leads but none could put a name to the faces.

The fireplace and mantel inside the restored Robert Price home.

Work on the interior yielded a similar result — plus a trove of family photos from behind the living room’s fireplace mantel. photograph by Chris Rogers

Down East returned the restored mantel to its place of prominence and finished the Price home in 2020. Now, the white paint on the weatherboard is the color of cold milk, the metal roof as tight as a snare drum. On the front porch, adorned with turned posts and gingerbread spandrels, one could relax and bask in the Southern sun.

Atop the home, the gable ornament — a miniature steeple and a symbol of faith — still points to heaven.

For more information about Down East Preservation, visit downeastpreservation.com.

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This story was published on Mar 25, 2024

Lisa Sorg

Lisa Sorg is an environmental reporter for NC Newsline.