The George Black House still cuts a handsome figure at the top of the hill on Dellabrook Road in Winston-Salem’s Dreamland Park neighborhood.
The symmetrical clapboard house boasts two chimneys, a generous front porch and distinctive front gable. Ringed with kudzu, the spread surrounding the house is similarly ample, and it’s easy to imagine the brickyard, gardens and smokehouses that once made it a hub of industry and plentitude.
The legacy of George Black, the internationally renowned brickmaker who lived here up to his death in 1980 at the age of 101, is secure. A National Register of Historic Places marker at the roadside ensures that. But the house is in sore need of repair: The floorboards on the porch have buckled and rotted. Glass is busted out of one of the front windows. What’s left of the front steps is a pile of rubble, and a new set fashioned out of George Black bricks is under construction.
Evelyn Terry, a state lawmaker and granddaughter of George Black, pulled into the gravel driveway on Tuesday afternoon, and members of Preservation Forsyth’s board of directors ambled up and greeted her.
By her own estimation, Terry has spent at least 20 years working to preserve her grandfather’s homeplace. She updated board members about a recent visit from a developer, adding that she’s requested a proposal. And she pulled out a large book entitled How to Build a House Museum by University of Chicago professor Theaster Gates, opening to a page with a black-and-white photo of her grandfather’s house. It’s unclear how much money it would take to stabilize and restore the house so that it can be opened to the public, but the local preservation group is at least entertaining the question, and its annual meeting on Nov. 17 will put the house in the spotlight.
“We haven’t discovered all the steps to [needed to renovate the house],” Preservation Forsyth President Joyce Pope said. “We’re developing that. We’re trying to figure out how to do that in a measured way, so it helps the owner. It’s a project in process.”
Whatever ultimately comes of the preservation project, Terry is determined that the site will convey the sense of innovation, industriousness, mutual support and fun that her grandfather provided to his family and the wider community.
“Papa’s place was the neighborhood social services and employment agency,” Terry said.
When Terry was a child, she was the third generation in the house.
“People came because there was work,” she said. “It was fun because my mama was a nutcase. She had good business sense. There were eight children. They were a musical family. My mama played banjo, and two of her brothers played piano. They played house rent parties. It was fun. But you didn’t linger. You had to work. It was a neighborhood gathering place. It was sort of laced and tied up with his entrepreneurial spirit.”
The family entertained on Sundays. Terry recalled family members reciting poetry and reading from the Bible. Her mother’s comedic streak elicited comparisons to Moms Mabley.
The son of a former slave, Black walked from his native Randolph County to Winston-Salem as a child. He found work for the Hedgecock family, and met his future wife, who worked for another family in what is now Old Salem.
“She taught him to read because she recognized what a mathematician he was,” Terry said. “That’s why they made it so well before the Depression.”
Black started out working for a white-owned brickmaker, but eventually acquired his own equipment and went into business for himself. He produced bricks that were used to build the 1923 North Carolina Baptist Hospital, Wachovia bank branches and fine homes in Winston-Salem’s elite Buena Vista neighborhood. Later, George Black’s bricks would be used in restorations of Old Salem and Colonial Williamsburg, and President Nixon sent him to Guyana to teach his brickmaking technique.
In its own way, the George Black House is as important as Reynolda House, home of the tobacco baron Reynolds family, said Martha Canipe, a member of Preservation Forsyth’s board of directors.
“Winston-Salem can be so proud of this family,” she said. “This man’s father was a slave. He walked here, and became a brickmaker, and his granddaughter is a state representative.”
Terry recalled that her grandfather was a fair man who didn’t consider himself subordinate to anyone, regardless of race or wealth. In one incident in the 1950s, Terry recalled either a president of chairman of the board from Wachovia Bank visiting the brickyard to check on an order. George Black ran the man off.
“I gave you my word,” Terry recalled her grandfather saying. “They’re gonna be ready. Go away and do your banking.”
George Black’s distinctive, handmade bricks were in high demand, and they required a higher level of craftsmanship to lay. Holding one of the bricks, Terry noted that the rough surface appealed to homeowners in Buena Vista who were looking for a rustic look. Their somewhat irregular shape required bricklayers to take a more artistic approach and be more conscientious with their application of mortar. Many bricklayers preferred working with factory-made bricks because they could go faster, she said.
Terry excavated her grandfather’s kiln and brickyard with the help of Thomas Brabham from 2009 to 2011.
Brabham was one of George Black’s proteges.
“He was a little boy who lived across the street,” Terry recalled. “His grandfather said, ‘The rest of the boys are going astray. Can you take him under your wing and put him to work?’ Papa did.”
Later, Terry took care of Brabham when his health declined. He died in 2013.
Terry said she thinks her grandfather’s example of self-respect and fair dealing with others should be applied more in today’s social climate.
“He was a model of the possibility of living in peace and harmony as long as you’re willing to give and take and learn from each other,” she said. “He was a model for living harmoniously without compromising your values.”
And she wants future generations to take pride in black heritage.
“It’s got the potential for being recreated,” Terry said. “I thought about a renaissance of sorts for East Winston because of our footprint. I get very emotional about this. We have a lot of young people who have given up on legacy and inheritance. This is your dirt. God’s not making it anymore.”
A discussion about 1900s African-American innovators of Winston-Salem will take place during Preservation Forsyth’s annual meeting at the George Black House, located at 111 Dellabrook Road in Winston-Salem, on Nov. 17 from 2 to 4 p.m.
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