Preservation Durham: Places in Peril

George Wall House, 1015 Onslow Street
Jun. 29, 2013 @ 10:27 AM

Why it’s important

The George Wall House tells the story of a remarkable man, his family and his community.  The president of Trinity College hired a teenaged George Wall, born a slave to the grandfather of a Trinity College physics professor, as a farm laborer.  Wall moved with Trinity College from Randolph County to Durham County in 1892, serving the college as a porter and custodian. George Wall served Trinity College and later Duke University for 60 years and was heralded for his upstanding character and work ethic. 

By 1900, Wall had built a home for himself and his growing family in a new neighborhood just north of Trinity College (now Duke’s East Campus). Wall situated his home on Third Street (now Onslow) on a gentle rise and his children and friends soon built houses nearby.  By 1910, the neighborhood was commonly called “Walltown” and was inhabited primarily by black university employees and factory workers.

This tiny frame house, covered in vinyl siding, exhibits its original shotgun form with an el addition, tin roof and chimneys. Shotgun houses, a building form associated with African Americans across the southeast from the 1880s to the 1920s and attributed by some historians to Haitian and West African forms, are rare in Durham, especially one associated with a specific individual – the namesake of the neighborhood.

Why it’s in peril:

Walltown flourished in the first half of the 20th century as a tight-knit black community with a church, a school and the oldest neighborhood community center in Durham.  After some years of decline, the neighborhood has rebounded thanks to revitalization efforts by the community association, city agencies and Self-Help.  Despite many successful projects throughout Walltown, the George Wall House itself has sat vacant and in disrepair, although still owned by the Wall family. 

What’s needed:

Duke University has honored its relationship with Walltown and the Wall family through the dedication of a neighborhood clinic and the Walltown Neighborhood History Project (a collaborative project among Duke faculty, students and community middle-schoolers to document the history of Walltown).

As Duke University celebrates the 50th Anniversary of Black Students at Duke, Preservation Durham encourages Duke to continue to document the history of black employees by helping to save the George Wall House.  Once rehabilitated, the house would make an excellent museum, community building or private residence, again significant to the fabric of the Walltown neighborhood.