Ancestors in real life: Walltown

{George Frank Wall, founder of Walltown in Durham, N.C.; My great-great-great grandfather c. 1946}

The idea of "ancestors" seems so abstract: a collective mass of souls--many of whom are unknown because we don't know much about them. Sometimes we pour libations to them. Or leave offerings for them. Sometimes, we name our children after them. And of course, there are those ancestors who take us so far back that we are only left with a vision of who they might have been. Having no knowledge of who they actually were.

I received an email from my mother about one of my own ancestors, the oldest ancestor that I know of on my maternal family's side, my great-great-great grandfather George Frank Wall. From what we know of George Wall, he moved to Durham, North Carolina in 1892. Employed with Trinity College, he later became employed with Duke University. He bought land alongside the area of what is now Duke University and his large plot of land became known as "Walltown." Walltown consisted of a school, church, community center and was the home to many of Durham's African-American residents. What is also interesting is that George Wall donated $100 to Duke University around the time of its inception and Duke University dedicated the Walltown Clinic in his memory a few years ago.

But that's not really what fascinates me so much. It's the picture of his face.

I'm trying to see who he is in that picture, as it is the first time I have ever seen an actual photograph of him (a sketch of him as a young man is available). I know that Duke University's fascination with him has more to do with what we don't know than what we do know, but that is to be expected. We would not be in America if we did not have to deal with the ramifications of slavery, racism, disenfranchisement and exploitation. It is the American way, after all.

I am reminded of just how alive the ancestors are, and just how timeless time really is. And the picture, it took me back to before I was born. To before my mother was even born and during a time when her mother was just a small girl.


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