Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

The Poor Rich Man – Podcast #211

As I’ve mentioned before on this podcast, I grew up in a small town in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. There were just two department stores in the entire county: a Jamesway in Monticello and Sullivan’s in Liberty. Both of those stores are long gone and today the only department store in the entire county is a gigantic Walmart across from where the old Jamesway store stood.

And while it wasn’t this particular Walmart that put Jamesway and Sullivan’s out of business, they both definitely fell victim to their inability to compete with the larger chains. Prior to World War II, nearly every town had a shopping district that included many mom-and-pop type stores, some of which were successful enough to develop into larger department stores. Then, after the war, when people began to move out to the suburbs, many of these stores had no choice but to follow along.

One of those department stores was the Hecht Co., which began in 1857 as a used furniture store in Baltimore, Maryland. Success allowed the store to not only expand its offerings, but to also move to bigger and better locations. It wasn’t long before Hecht became a full-fledged department store. Additional Hecht stores were opened in New York City, Easton and Annapolis, Maryland, and what would become its flagship store in Washington, D.C.

The Hecht department store in Washington, DC.
The Hecht department store in Washington, DC. (Wikipedia image.)

Then, in 1947 Hecht opened a large three-story department store in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, which lies just north of Washington, D.C. Some questioned Hecht’s decision to open a store in the suburbs, but their bet paid off. It proved to be so successful that within a few years, they added a fourth story to the building.

So, Hecht began to look around for a location to open their second suburban store. This time they decided to head a bit south of Washington, DC, and found exactly what they were looking for. In April of 1950, it was announced that Hecht’s would open a store in Arlington, Virginia, a locale whose population had nearly tripled in the preceding decade.

It would be a monster of a store: There would be five floors—four above ground and a basement—that would provide an estimated 250,000 square feet (23,225 square meters) of selling space. A four-floor parking garage would provide space for an estimated 2,000 cars. They also planned to build and rent out thirty additional stores adjacent to the main building. The project, in total, was estimated to cost $10 million ($118 million today).

When the store opened on November 2, 1951, Hecht claimed that construction included the installation of 400 branch telephones, $100,000 (approximately $1.16 million today) worth of carpeting, $175,000 ($2 million) for cash registers, and $40,000 ($463,000) for chairs. At the time, this was the largest suburban department store in the United States.

The store was built on a triangular 18-acre site, much of which was once home to a sandlot ballpark. But the remainder was made up of homes that mostly belonged to poor African Americans. Initially, these homes were purchased at reasonable prices, but it wasn’t long before the value of property in the area began to skyrocket.

As with most large-scale projects, unexpected issues invariably arise, introducing complications, delays, or possibly canceling the project in its entirety. These issues may stem from difficulties in securing project financing, navigating unexpected legal regulations, facing court challenges, and similar obstacles.

The Hecht project was no exception, but what set this situation apart was that a single individual stood in the way of its completion.

That man was 85-year-old Reverend Harrison Galloway. At the time, he was living in a two-story shack at 604 N. Randolph St, which was one of the three streets that bordered the triangular plot on which the Hecht store was being built. The house was assessed in 1949 for $3,700 (approximately $43,700 today).

Of course, Hecht didn’t want his house. They wanted the nearly one-acre parcel on which it was built. Galloway wasn’t against selling the property but wouldn’t do so unless Hecht met his price. Galloway demanded payment of $1,000 for every year that he was alive.

“I know my price,” he told a reporter. “It is $85,000 in cash with six months to vacate.” Adjusted for inflation, that would be a little over $1 million today.

 “I have been offered $85,000 already,” the Reverend said, “but I’m not going to sell to the fellows that talked to me. They wanted to pay in stocks and bonds, and I want cash. And when I get my money, I’m going to build a church. Not here but someplace in Arlington where lots of colored people can come and listen to the word of God.”

He continued, “Another fellow said he’d give me $55,000 cash but I’m not going to sell unless I get $85,000 cash and six months to vacate.” Then with a bit of a smile, he added, “I think I’ll get it.”

Galloway made it clear that he was willing to wait them out. “I have lived here 35 years and I’m not rushing to get out,” he said. “I don’t have any living relatives. I live alone with my chickens and ducks. I don’t have electricity, just a couple of oil lamps. I’ve a water pipe in the front yard and I keep warm with an oil stove and a wood stove. My old congregation keeps me in food, I have a garden and I cook my own meals. I’m happy enough.”

The “old congregation” that he was referring to were the sixty-five members of The Cedar Grove Baptist Church that once stood beside his home. He explained, “All the congregation moved away so I tore the church down.” He noted, “The church was never self-supporting. The people just couldn’t do it. I supported the church.”

There is little documentation regarding Harrison Galloway’s early life, but I was able to piece together the following:

“I was born a slave baby in 1865, down in Orange County, Virginia. I started preaching when I was 15.”

A check of the US census shows that he was unemployed in 1910, did labor-street work in 1920, was active as a preacher in 1930, had a $100 income as a salesman of some sort of liniment in 1940, and had effectively retired by 1950, the same year that Hecht announced the construction of their new store.

Galloway claimed that he and his wife Mary had purchased his now valuable piece of property back in somewhere around 1916 for $300 (approximately $8,500 today). He first built a small home for the couple to live in. After that, he constructed his church. Sadly, Mary died at age 60 on March 3, 1939, from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Death certificate for Mary Galloway.
Death certificate for Mary Galloway. (Click on image to enlarge.)

At the time of her death, Galloway would have been around 74 years of age and was the father of two adult sons, Louis and Daniel. According to one article, Mary was Galloway’s second wife, leaving uncertainty about whether she was the mother of his sons.

On September 15, 1942, Galloway married Mabel B. Lowary in Washington, DC. He was 76 and she was 63 years old.

He married once again on August 29, 1947, to Rosa Belle Milsap. He was 80 and she was 30 years old. That union lasted only 3 months, although their divorce was finalized on January 25, 1951. Just coincidentally, that was the same day that news of his refusal to sell his home began to appear in the newspapers. In an interview with Evening Star, he proclaimed, “I’m not gonna get married again. I’m too old.”

1951 divorce decree between Harrison Galloway and Rosa Belle Milsap.
1951 divorce decree between Harrison Galloway and Rosa Belle Milsap. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Old he may have been, but Galloway was still holding firm to his $85,000 asking price. But he may have been setting his sights too high. A spokesman for the Hecht Co. told the press that they had all the land that was needed to build their new store and were in no need of Reverend Galloway’s parcel.

We’ve seen this picture play out many times before. A property owner refuses to sell their property, so the developers simply build right around the structure. Just do a quick search online for property holdouts and it shouldn’t take you long to see some notable examples.

Harrison Galloway was going up against a mighty big corporation. Would the developers pay him what he wanted, or would they simply construct the mall around his property?

Galloway commented, “I started to sell three years ago, but changed my mind and decided to stay and now I want my price. I won’t sell cheap.”

On January 31, 1951, five days after the press began reporting on the story, the Reverend announced that they had agreed to his terms. “A man—he said he was speaking for some Florida people—offered me $85,000 cash for my land Friday. He’ll give me 4 months to vacate, too.” He added, “These Florida people said they’ll pick me up on Friday to go to the (Arlington) courthouse and close the deal.” Galloway agreed to the offer but noted that an Arlington attorney would be handling the deed transfer. Then he told the reporter, “I knew I’d get it.”

Yet for some reason, he never got it. One could speculate as to what had gone wrong, but no mention was made in the press as to why the deal had collapsed.

Fast forward to March 8 and Galloway announced that he was lowering his asking price to $55,000 cash. (Approximately $650,000 adjusted for inflation.) He explained that he was doing this because “the Lord will soon be calling for me, I think.” He added that once he paid the taxes on the sale, he would use the remainder to “buy a little house in Washington and wait for God’s call.”

Luckily for Galloway, that call didn’t come quickly. He was unable to sell the house for the $55,000 he was seeking.

Then, on September 27, 1951, it was announced that he had reached an agreement with Hecht. The selling price was $25,000 (approximately $295,000 today). The sale was finalized after Galloway signed the deed transfer with a simple letter X.

Almost immediately, work began on grading his front yard and bulldozers were brought in to demolish his house. It was time for Harrison Galloway to move out, but he had nowhere to go. That’s because his attorney William L. Houston was refusing to turn over the $18,879 that remained after taxes and legal fees were paid.

Colorized image of Harrison Galloway.
Colorized image of Harrison Galloway. Original black and white image appeared in Time on February 12, 1951. A copy can be found on archive.org.

Harrison Galloway may have been rich on paper, but he had no money to spend. He was a poor rich man.

The reality was that Houston was simply working in the best interest of his client. Reverend Galloway was an elderly man who had suddenly come into a large chunk of money and it seemed like every Tom, Dick, and Harry wanted a piece of the pie. This included two women who said that they wanted to marry him, another who claimed to be his secretary, and numerous relatives that the Reverend hadn’t had contact with in many years. Attorney Houston concluded that the best way to keep Galloway from squandering his money was to keep it in a bank.

Needless to say, Galloway got himself another lawyer and filed suit against William Houston. On Friday, October 19, 1951, a hearing was held in federal district court in Washington, DC before Judge James R. Kirkland. He carefully listened to arguments from both sides and then said, “I don’t care if there is 60 women who want to marry him and 900 relatives who are interested in his money. If Mr. Galloway has the capacity to make a deed selling the property — he is entitled to the money.”

The judge noted not only Galloway’s advanced age, but also that he was illiterate, and perhaps most importantly, had no clear recollection of selling his home to Hecht. Kirkland ordered an investigation be made to determine if Reverend Galloway had the “mental capacity” to make such a decision. He said, “There is serious question whether this illiterate 86-year-old man had capacity to make the deed. If it is determined that he had the capacity, I suppose he is entitled to the money.”

One week later, the judge determined that Galloway did lack the mental capacity to make such decisions. Consequently, the judge ordered that the funds be retained in the bank until a guardian could be appointed to safeguard them.

A few days later, a petition was filed in the Arlington Circuit Court seeking the appointment of Galloway’s 60-year-old son, Lewis, as the guardian of his father’s estate. In that document, Louis alleged that his father was “mentally and physically incapable of properly managing his estate.”

Judge Walter T. McCarthy ruled that Reverend Galloway was unable to properly manage his estate, but in a surprising decision, did not appoint his son Lewis as his guardian. Perhaps the fact that he hadn’t seen his father in fifty-three years had something to do with the judge’s decision. Instead, an Alexandria attorney was designated as the guardian for the Reverend.

Meanwhile, Andrew N. Carroll, one of Harrison Galloway’s lawyers, filed papers in federal court requesting that the sale of the land to the Hecht Co. be voided. That’s because there was considerable doubt as to whether his client had the mental capacity to understand that he was signing away his house and land. In addition, it was felt that he did not receive a fair amount for his land.

While Galloway insisted that he had never signed the deed that transferred the property, Mrs. Virginia Walton Burns, a notary public, said that she had witnessed him signing the documents with his X. In addition, Fred Cosnell, the county tax assessor, stated that he felt that Galloway had received a “fair amount” for the sale of his property.

That suit would ultimately be thrown out by the judge, but right around the time that it was being argued in federal court, Reverend Galloway found himself back in the Arlington Circuit Court for a completely different reason. On Wednesday, November 7, 1951, the now 86-year-old Galloway and 64-year-old Mrs. Rosetta Mills Lewis, a widow, arrived to obtain a marriage license. Having grown up in Arlington and known the Reverend since she was a child, the couple planned to marry the following Tuesday. However, Court Clerk H. Bruce Green, aware of the ruling on Galloway’s mental capacity, refused to issue the marriage license.

Informed that it would be several days before a judge would review Green’s decision not to issue the license, the couple came up with an alternate plan: Since Mrs. Lewis was a resident of Washington, DC, she would apply for a marriage license there instead. And once again, they were refused.

Instead of it being their wedding day, the two found themselves standing before Judge Kirkland on November 13, 1951. He concluded that Reverend Galloway was “of retarded mental development” and ordered that no marriage license be issued.

But the two still had hope that after a judge heard their case back in Arlington, they would be allowed to marry. That was not to happen. One day after Judge Kirkland denied them a license, Judge McCarthy upheld County Clerk Green’s decision to deny the couple a marriage license.

Not one to easily give up, Galloway went back to DC on November 20 and once again applied for a marriage license. And for the second Tuesday in a row, Judge Kirkland once again squashed their plans to marry.

Marriage certificate between Harrison Galloway and Rosetta Mills.
Marriage certificate between Harrison Galloway and Rosetta Mills. (Click on image to enlarge.)

It was clear that there was no way that the two could marry anywhere in the area surrounding Washington, DC. Galloway’s story was just too well known there. So, they opted to head off to a place where they would probably not be recognized. That place was Charlottesville, Virginia, which lies approximately 95 miles (153 km) southwest of Arlington. There, on Thursday, February 28, 1952, the two were finally married. An examination of their license shows that they fibbed a bit with the information that they provided. Rosetta gave her address as a rural route in Charlottesville, while Reverend Galloway gave his age as a youthful 72.

The two would stay married until his passing on Tuesday, May 24, 1955, at the D.C. General Hospital. Internment was at the Woodlawn Cemetery in Washington, DC. Reverend Harrison Galloway was 91 years of age.

His estate was valued at $15,000 (approximately $172,000 today). In his will, he accused his son Lewis, whom he hadn’t seen for those 53 years, of displaying “disrespect to me during my lifetime.” To emphasize this sentiment, he bequeathed him a paltry $5 ($55 today). The remainder of his estate was bequeathed to his wife, Rosetta.

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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