Woman traces her 165-year-old grand piano to enslaved ancestor in NC: 'Find me'

Joel Brown Image
Tuesday, June 18, 2024
NC woman traces her 165-year-old grand piano to enslaved ancestor
Durham woman's 165-year-old grand piano starts her on a 50-year journey to find her enslaved ancestor in Caswell County

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- As the nation gets set to mark Juneteenth this week, we're spotlighting our ABC News partnership with 10 Million Names. It's a project using genealogy to uncover the names of Black Americans enslaved in the U.S. before 1865.

Many of those unidentified enslaved people lived and had families here in central Carolina. One descendant in Durham has made it her mission to solve her family mystery. She's found one very large clue: a square grand piano.

As a trained pianist, it pains Paula Harrell to hear the out-of-tune notes echoing from the 165-year-old piano in her Durham living room. But she still plays it from time to time. More often she just stares and wonders. And once, she says, the piano said something back.

"One day I was looking at it and I'm sure it spoke to me and said, 'Find me,'" said Harrell, who once served as chairperson of the Department of Music at NC Central University.

Harrell was convinced the voice she heard pleading to be found was her great-great aunt who was born enslaved, likely in Caswell County.

"So that is when I started my genealogy journey," said Harrell whose been documenting that journey in a family album. It includes a photo of Harrell's first ancestor born into freedom; found birth certificates; death records; marriages; children and careers.

But the great-great aunt whispering to be found is still just a silhouette in the album. No one knows her name -- but her humanity is forever tied to this piano.

Pre-Civil War in Caswell County, the white and well-to-do Connally family purchased the Nunns and Company square grand piano for their large Leasburg home. The Connallys enslaved several of Harrell's ancestors. And after emancipation, many returned as paid domestic servants, including Harrell's late mother -- who dutifully dusted the piano. Then came a revelation from her Aunt Bell.

"(Aunt Bell) was the one that told my mother while she was dusting the piano, 'You know they sold my sister for $1000 to buy this piano.' And so my mother couldn't believe it, but she never told. She never told us about it."

It went unspoken for decades, but the Harrells suspected the Connallys sold their enslaved relative in exchange for the thousand-dollar rosewood and mahogany piano. Flesh and blood for a musical instrument.

Then in 1974, the beginning of a reckoning. The Connally matriarch had died. The piano was for sale. Harrell's mother reached out to the Connally daughter. The piano became the missing piece of the family tree.

"(The Connally daughter said, 'Well, I'll sell (the piano) to you for $200, $250.' Well, I thought she should have given it to us," Harrell recalled with a laugh.

In the end, Harrell's family paid the price. They brought the piano home to Durham where it sits now in a place of honor in Harrell's front room.

It was the beginning of a now 50-year-long genealogy journey to identify her great-great aunt.

"I still have not found who she is. But I've been getting a little closer, a little closer," Harrell said.

When asked what it means to have the piano in her home, Harrell replied, "I just think it's the providence of God."

If you're wondering why Harrell has not tuned the piano. She has tried but says there was only one company in the country still able to tune those old Nunns and Co. pianos. The price was $30,000.

Harrell declined -- choosing instead to invest in solving her family's genealogy mystery. But many African Americans are running into the same brick walls Harrell has in researching enslaved ancestors.

Tuesday night we'll speak to a young man who was once the nation's youngest certified genealogist. He now lives in Raleigh and has dedicated his life to solving those mysteries.

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