George Black shaped the foundations of Winston-Salem.
The son of former slaves, he built a national reputation as the creator of handmade Carolina red bricks – bricks used in many of the city’s upscale homes, churches and businesses, and in restoration projects at Old Salem and Colonial Williamsburg.
Born in 1879, Black was raised in Randolph County on a one-time plantation now the site of the NC Zoological Park. He moved to Winston-Salem as a child, walking from Asheboro with his father and brother. “It took them two days to walk here,” said his granddaughter, Evelyn Terry.
To help the family make ends meet, he began working for the Hedgecock and Himes brickyard while a youngster, learning the trade which would become his legacy.
The family prided itself on self-sufficiency and Black took on a variety of other jobs to earn a solid living, including blacksmithing, butchering, road building, and working at Old Salem. When the brickyard gave him an old mud mill to use as firewood, he decided to go into the brick business for himself.
Black’s home on Dellabrook Road became his brickyard. Despite the industry’s increasing mechanization, Black continued his traditional craft, often being outside from dawn to dusk, firing bricks.
“My grandfather was very proud of his brickmaking skills. But he was also very humble,” Terry said. “He often wondered why so many folks were making a fuss over his skills and his mathematical brilliance. But he accurately counted and priced every brick he made in his head.”
Needing a competitive edge in a segregated society, Black sold his bricks for about two cents each while building a reputation for fairness and honesty. The quality of Black’s work attracted notable clients, among them the tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, who purchased over a million bricks, Terry said.
Often, over a late dinner, Black would talk with his granddaughter about his life and the struggles he endured living in a segregated society.
“One story he told me was about how much he and his brother wanted an education,” Terry said. “His brother said ‘Georgie, it looks like we’re not going to get an education now, so we’ll have to do whatever work we can get to make a living and care for ourselves and the family. We can still stand up, make men of ourselves and maybe somebody, someday, will call us Mr. Black’.”
To cope, Black, a life-long member of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, relied on a strong Christian faith and time spent in prayer, Terry said.
Despite his contributions to Winston-Salem’s history, Black received relatively little acclaim for much of his life. Then, when he was in his nineties, Charles Kuralt of CBS television featured Black in his “On the Road” series. It captured the attention of President Richard Nixon and Black soon received an invitation from the Agency for International Development. So, at age 92, Black found himself in Guyana, South America, teaching handmade brickmaking in the capital, Georgetown.
Black passed away in October 1980 at age 101 and was buried in Winston-Salem’s Evergreen Cemetery.
In 2000, Black’s home and brickyard were added to the National Register of Historic Places. A marker was erected at the site by the Forsyth County Historic Resources Commission in 2007.
–by Bria Lindsay