Ever been to a city that’s proud of its bricks? Throughout Durham, you’ll come across bricks with an intriguing design. To newcomers, they’re interesting and artsy. To locals, and those who’ve been here a minute, they’re a major pride point. If you’ve walked on these you’ve officially stood where history was made. These are Fitzgerald bricks.
Richard Burton Fitzgerald. Know that name for it is one of the most important in both black history and Durham’s history.
R.B. Fitzgerald was born free in Delaware in 1843 to Thomas and Sarah Fitzgerald[*]. Richard's middle name Burton was Sarah's maden name. In 1869, after the Civil War ended, and the same year Durham was officially incorporated as a city, R.B. moved to North Carolina and built a brick empire with his brother Robert as Durham grew, brick by brick. It was actually Robert who had the brick business ideal and talked R.B. into coming to Durham.
By 1885 they were producing 4 million bricks annually[*]. Andre Vann's book Durham's Lincoln Hospital states that in 1912 the Fitzgerald's were producing 30,000 brick A DAY. Depending on whether the brick yard was operating 5 or 7 days a week, that would put production between 7.8 to 10.9 million bricks annually.
The building on the corner of Kent and West Chapel Hill Street is the Fitzgerald building. Under that stucco lies Fitzgerald bricks. The land surrounding was once his brickyard and several Fitzgerald family homes. There is even a Fitzgerald portion of the Maplewood cemetary, which lies directly behind much of the land that was owned by the Fitzgeralds. R.B.'s great niece, Pauli Murray, grew up in a home at 906 Carroll Street with her aunt Pauline and her grandparents Robert and Cornelia. That home is now the Pauli Murray Center and directly behind it lies the Maplewood Cemetary.
No one could compete with the craftsmanship of Fitzgerald bricks. They were the preferred bricks of both the Dukes and W.T. Blackwell. Yes, those Dukes. And yes, Blackwell as in Blackwell Street, the Old Bull building and the business crazed, hardass that steamrolled all other tobacco competitors to make Bull Durham tobacco a global-household name. Old Bull is the oldest standing building in Durham built in 1874 and the first all brick tobacco factory in the US. Not just any bricks. Fitzgerald bricks.
It is rumored that both the Duke family and Blackwell turned down white brick masons, who thought that their skin color would warrant them a contract over the quality of Fitzgerald bricks. Nope. The tobacco moguls stuck with Fitzgerald. In fact, at one point Blackwell offered to buy EVERY brick the Fitzgerald brick company made. Given Blackwell's notorious, relentless business manners it could be entirely possiBULL that offer was a demand.
R.B. Fitzgerald went on to become one of the forefathers of Durham’s Black Wall Street as the first president of black-own Mechanics and Farmers Bank. He also purchased the equipment needed to start a local newspaper for the black community, however there is no record of whether or not that paper ever came to fruition. As it was a paper intended exclusively for the black community, it's entirely possiBULL that it is purposeful there is no record. Keep in mind who has kept records and reported history for the majority of history and the biased lenses through which they did so - white males.
Fitzgerald was also a cofounder of Durham Drug Co., which was renamed Fitzgerald Drug Co. He was also treasurer of Lincoln hospital, the first president of Coleman Manufacturing Co., the first cotton mill exclusively own and operated by African Americans[*]. Fitzgerald is also well known for his role as an original incorporator of NC Mutual. His list of accomplishments goes on, as does his legacy 100 years after his passing on March 24th, 1918.
The Fitzgerald bricks have a very distinct, eye-catching circular pattern on them. There's no mistaking which bricks are Fitzegerald bricks. Trying to find out what, if anything, the pattern meant and why they chose to use it.
Do you know the backstory to the brick pattern? Where have you seen Fitzgerald brick in Durham? Are you one of the fortunate individuals who get to have Fitzgerald bricks at your home or work? We'd love to hear from you.
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