Duke has a long and proud history of support from individuals, whose gifts have helped make the university what it is today. The largest of those gifts, such as the establishment of The Duke Endowment by James B. Duke in 1924, are well celebrated, their legacies literally cemented into the university’s physical campus. But the thousands of smaller contributions Duke has received throughout its history often reveal a more intimate portrait of Duke’s connection to its donors. Such a gift came in 1946, when longtime Duke employee George-Frank Wall made a bequest to Duke, one whose symbolism outsized its monetary value.
The story starts in 1870, when President Braxton Craven hired fourteen-year-old George Wall, a former slave, to help out on Trinity College’s campus in Randolph County. Known to everyone around campus as “Uncle George,” Wall worked for Trinity (and later, Duke) for sixty years. When Trinity moved to Durham in the 1890s, Wall followed. He purchased land near the Durham campus and helped establish the neighborhood later named for him, Walltown.
Upon learning of his death in 1930, John Franklin Crowell, former president of Trinity, wrote to the Alumni Register: “During my latest visit to Durham, I learned incidentally that George Wall lived in the vicinity. President Few sent for him so that we might meet again, and ours was a happy half hour in recalling old times. We seemed to be like old friends cordially enjoying each other’s recollections as coworkers. The cordial spirit in which we chatted caused some to remark what a fine friendly feeling prevailed between President and Janitor of the same institution, after more than thirty years of separation.” Crowell wrote that he considered Wall’s death a personal loss.
George-Frank Wall, one of George Wall’s nine children, was born sometime before Christmas of 1871. (The exact date is unknown.) Frank, as he was known, often helped his father clean and make beds for students at Trinity. He did not receive a formal education and likely could not read or write. But like his father, he became an integral part of Durham and campus life, raising four sons in Walltown and continuing to work at Duke until his death in 1953. Longtime director of dining halls Ted Minah dubbed Wall the “Sheriff of the Dining Halls,” as Wall was assigned to enforce the cleanliness of the dining facilities. When Wall wrote his will in 1946, he elected President Robert Flowers as executor of his estate.
That will stated that all Wall’s worldly possessions should go to his wife—except for $100. That—the equivalent of about $1,200 today—he reserved for Duke.
“The reason that I am giving Duke University the One Hundred Dollars,” the will states, “is that I have been employed by said School all my life, from Old Trinity in Randolph County, to Trinity College in Durham, thence Duke University where I am now employed. I want to impress on other colored men, the fine and good relations between Christian White People and Christian Negroes. For seventy-five years, I have been employed by said institution and never a cross word but Christian Harmony.”
Wall’s gift, which was added to the scholarship fund, came at a time when Duke did not admit African-American students. It would not be until ten years after his death that the first black undergraduates enrolled. In the years since, two descendants of the elder George Wall’s nine children have graduated from Duke, according to the Wall family.
The family connection that inspired Wall’s generosity is visible in many other aspects of university life, as well. In recent years, Duke has forged new partnerships with the Walltown neighborhood, including a neighborhood health clinic, a children’s theater, and a DukeEngage project to help middle-school students learn about the history of their neighborhood.
Throughout Duke’s history, thousands of employees and alumni have shown their support of Duke with gifts large and small. Stories like those of George-Frank Wall and his family’s enduring bond to Duke help us remember that the true value of those gifts isn’t always measured in dollars and cents.
Gillispie is Duke’s university archivist.