Richard B. Fitzgerald
Richard Burton Fitzgerald (circa 1843 – March 24, 1918) was an African-American brickmaker whose bricks went into the construction of many of Durham, North Carolina’s important buildings. He was also president of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank in Durham, and was involved in other business ventures throughout North Carolina.
Fitzgerald was born in New Castle County, Delaware, to Thomas and Sarah (Burton) Fitzgerald. His father was a manumitted “mulatto” (of Irish and African ancestry) slave and his mother was white; his mother decided to raise her sons proudly within the black community, instead of "passing" as white. Growing up, Richard was described as a "sturdy, rough and tumble fellow... who could work hard but cared more for good times" than he did for studying. And as "Fiery, red-faced blond Richie had the same sharp blue eyes and shrewd trader's head as his mother. He was quick to drive a hard bargain and even quicker with his fists. His hot temper led him into many skirmishes and even as an old man he used to laugh and say, 'By golly, if I was dying and somebody made me mad, I’d stop dying long enough to fight about it.'" At night, his more studious brother Robert would teach Richard and his siblings what Robert had learned in school that day, as both Richard and their brother William ("Billy") worked in their father’s brickyard rather than attend the local Quaker school.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Fitzgerald joined the Quartermaster Department as a civilian contractor in Philadelphia, as blacks were not allowed to serve in the military at the time. In 1862, he was transferred to the Army of the Potomac's Washington supply base, where he drove mules for the Union army, spending most of 1862 at Harrison's Landing and the Fort Monroe area; he "went to sea" later in the war, likely as a merchant seaman.
In late 1869, he and his brother Billy moved to a farm east of Hillsborough, North Carolina, to be with his brother, sisters, and parents, who had moved there recently from Pennsylvania and purchased property. They soon set up a brickyard at the farm, with the assistance of their father, Thomas, and their brother Robert. However, a financial crisis was gripping the country at the time, and locally a bad drought was occurring. The Fitzgerald brick business had by this time produced 40,000 bricks, but had no buyers; They made several trips to Raleigh to attempt to sell their bricks, but to no avail; Billy returned to Pennsylvania within a few months of his arrival in North Carolina.
Richard soon became disheartened by the local business prospects, and also returned to Pennsylvania. His brother Robert, however, had secured an order for 4,000 bricks for state railroad improvements. Robert also had been able to obtain a contract to make 4,000,000 bricks for the state penitentiary in Raleigh, and wrote Richard and Billy about the contracts, persuading them to return from Pennsylvania.
They began the contracts in the spring of 1870, and the Fitzgeralds hired a crew of men to assist with production. They soon traveled to Raleigh and began setting up the brick production site. However, a flash flood destroyed several thousand bricks they had produced, and Billy once again became discouraged and departed for Pennsylvania. Richard and Robert were able to salvage some of the bricks, and were able to produce 525,000 brick for which they were paid eighty-five cents per thousand. After paying off their business debts and their laborers, they came away with a net profit of $83.10 for the four months’ work.
On April 4, 1870, Richard married Sarah ("Sallie") Ann Williams at Sarah's parents' house; In 1879, the Fitzgerald brothers (Richard and Robert) moved to Durham, due to potentially favorable financial prospects within the developing tobacco economy. "In Durham Richard Fitzgerald bought a large tract with a good vein of clay for brick in the vicinity of later Gattis and Wilkerson streets... here he began a brickyard and built an eighteen-room house shaded by a grove of maples and magnolias".
According to his grandniece Pauli Murray, "Within the next fifteen years Uncle Richard became Durham's leading brick maker. By 1884, he had a large brickyard on Chapel Hill Road and orders on hand for two million bricks". His brick company was located at the corner of Fitzgerald Street and Chapel Hill Road, and later Wilkerson and Gattis streets (which may be the same location, but the street names changed).
Tobacco manufacturer William T. Blackwell told Fitzgerald that he would purchase all the brick Fitzgerald made, and "today (1910) he not only turns out 30,000 brick a day from his $17,000 plant, but owns besides 100 acres (0.40 km2) of land within the city limits and has $50,000 worth of real estate." W.T. Bost, the city editor of the Durham Herald, said that Fitzgerald "makes better brick than any other man in town; therefore the people buy Fitzgerald's brick".
Thirty years of brickmaking (i.e. prior to 1913) had "netted Fitzgerald a big brickyard with a $6000 cement dryer, which makes it possible to turn out brick at all seasons; a yard whose capacity is 30,000 bricks per day, and whose value, including ten acres of land, is $17,000." His holdings in 1913 were valued conservatively at $100,000. "Turning his profits into real estate, he has... invested $1500 in a lot and five years later sold the property for $6000; he bought forty acres of farm land for $800, made brick on it for ten years and then sold it for $3000".
Besides brickmaking, Fitzgerald was involved in many other business ventures. In 1885, he purchased newspaper printing equipment to start a newspaper for the African-American community in Durham; it is unknown if any papers were published, as no known examples survive. In 1895, Fitzgerald and four others started the Durham Drug Company, which was renamed the Fitzgerald Drug Company in 1901, and operated until 1910, when its name changed again. Also in 1901, Fitzgerald became the treasurer for Lincoln Hospital. In 1898, Fitzgerald became the president of the Coleman Manufacturing Company in Concord, North Carolina, and was president of the Durham Real Estate, Mercantile, and Manufacturing Company, which was incorporated in 1899, and which was "formed under the laws of the State of North Carolina to promote manufacturing and mercantile interests" for African-Americans.
Fitzgerald was also an original incorporator of the Mechanics and Farmers Bank, which received its charter from the State of North Carolina in 1907 and opened its office in the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company Building on Parrish Street (a.k.a. the “Black Wall Street") in 1908.
Fitzgerald and his wife apparently had at least 12 children; sons Samuel (born 1883), William (1892–1927), Burton ("Burke"; 1887–1916), Charles (born 1876), and Richard (1882–1886). Daughters Sarah (born 1874), Alma (born 1893), Beatrice (born 1880), Irene (born 1896), Lilly (born ca. 1873), Leer (born ca. 1878), and Susan (born ca. 1880). Sons Burke and Samuel followed in their father's footsteps as brickmakers; Samuel continued the family brickmaking business after his father’s death.
Richard Fitzgerald died on March 24, 1918, and is buried in the Fitzgerald section of the Maplewood Cemetery in Durham.
Some of the buildings constructed with Fitzgerald brick
- Central Prison; Raleigh (1870–84)
- Emmanuel AME Church; Kent Street, Durham (1888)
- St. Joseph's AME Church (now Hayti Heritage Center); Fayetteville Street, Durham (1891)
- Erwin Cotton Mills; West Main and Ninth streets, Durham (1892)
- Fitzgerald Building; corner of Chapel Hill and Kent streets, Durham (1910)
- Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes. Harper & Brothers, New York. 1956.
- Anderson, Jean B. Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina. The Historic Preservation Society of Durham. Duke University Press, 1990.
- Chas. Emerson's North Carolina Tobacco Belt Directory. Edwards, Broughton, and Co., Raleigh, 1886; 1911 Durham City directory.
- Harlan, Louis R., Raymond W. Smock, and Geraldine McTigue (eds.). The Booker T. Washington Papers, Volume II, 1911-1912. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1981. 58, 63.
- Richardson, Clement. What are Negroes doing in Durham? Southern Workman, Vol. 42., 1913. 389-90.
- Andrews, R. McCants. John Merrick: A Biographical Sketch. Seeman Printery, Durham, 1920.
- Richings, G. F. Evidences of Progress Among Colored People. Published by Geo. S. Ferguson Co., Philadelphia, 1905; Anderson, Jean B. Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina. The Historic Preservation Society of Durham. Duke University Press, 1990.
- 1880, 1900, 1910 U.S. Federal Censuses.