The Legacy of Duke's First Janitor

George Wall founded Walltown, a neighborhood near Duke's East Campus
March 3, 2015
George Wall, image courtesy the Walltown Community Association

Walltown natives keep their creation story handy like a lucky old coin, proof of their hard-won fortune and untarnished pride. “Old man Wall’s house,” they say knowingly, gesturing toward Onslow Street, formerly Third Street, and before that Wall Street, to the spot where the first house in these parts was built more than a century ago.

A census entry in spindly cursive, a black-and-white death certificate, and a hand-drawn fire-insurance map are surviving clues to the life of George W. Wall. The exact date is not known, but it seems Wall was born into slavery around 1854 in the gently rolling foothills of Randolph County, North Carolina. He was the son of Irena and the slave of Solomon Wall, a farmer. A few years before, educator and Methodist minister Braxton Craven became head of the soon-to-be Trinity College in Randolph. Wall was an emancipated teenager when Craven hired him as a servant, and he soon began working for the college as a janitor.

Wall may have been the sole employee, apart from faculty members, to follow Trinity College to Durham in 1892. What compelled him to journey seventy miles away (at that time a long distance) from his birthplace and all he knew? Perhaps it was his devotion to the institution, or a need for stable income. Maybe he was hungry for adventure or uncharted land—Durham could offer both, as it was quickly sprouting into the vibrant tobacco capital of the South and the nation. Whatever his reasons, as the college’s textbooks and bronze bell were shipped over in boxcars, Wall and his family moved as well.

During his early years in Durham, Wall’s name appears here and there in local directories. At first he may have stayed on the college campus, a former fairgrounds donated by industrialist and philanthropist Julian S. Carr. A few years later, Wall is listed as a “porter” residing in Trinity Park, the area just east of campus where faculty members and administrators lived. A blue-collar minority in a sea of lettered whites, Wall may have longed for a kindred circle of other working black men; for other women to befriend his young wife, Hattie; and for other children to play with his own.

In 1902, Wall turned north. Just beyond the college grounds, a stretch of woods had been platted into residential blocks, numbered in one direction, lettered in the other, and posted for sale. Slightly sunken, creased by gullies, and vulnerable to flooding, the terrain was not prime for building. Yet Wall was drawn to this untouched frontier, and there he bought a plot for $50. Soon after, he built a small wood-frame cottage: one story tall, one room wide, and a few rooms deep, with a brick chimney and a little shed-roofed stoop in front. Soon other black families settled nearby, forming a close working-class community. In the 1920s, around the time Trinity was renamed Duke University, the industrious little hamlet two blocks north was coined Walltown.

Despite his lowly status, Wall became good friends with college president John F. Crowell, who wrote in a letter of the janitor’s “fidelity and simple devotion to duties that were not always the pleasantest and easiest.” One of Wall’s sons appears to be named Braxton, likely in honor of the man who employed him for decades. Another son, George-Frank, also worked at Duke as a custodian and bequeathed the university a generous gift of $100 upon his death.

After fifty years of continuous service to Trinity and Duke, Wall died in the winter of 1930. He left behind a second wife, Lillie Wall, and several generations of children and grandchildren (several of his great-grandchildren still reside in Walltown today).

  One can still leave East Campus, walk north for three blocks, and spot Wall’s little wood-frame cottage on Onslow Street. Cobwebs lace the porch, broken bottles litter the yard, the rooms are cloaked in dust. The house is empty, weathered, and almost hidden, but it is still there.

 

 

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.