Robert Fitzgerald: Hero and Educator

Robert George Fitzgerald was born in 1840 in Newcastle County, Delaware. He was the son of Thomas Fitzgerald, a freed slave. In 1859, Robert enrolled in the Ashmun Institute in Pennsylvania, which became Lincoln University. Before that, he studied at the Philadelphia Institute for Colored Youth. Fitzgerald was a veteran of the Union Army and Navy during the Civil War. Fitzgerald arrived in Hillsborough in January of 1868 through the Friend’s Freedmen Association of Philadelphia to teach at a new school for Black students. He would become influential in early local African-American education. 

Fitzgerald served in the U. S. Navy aboard the USS North Carolina, USS William G. Anderson, and the USS Ohio from 1863 until January 1864 when he enlisted in the 5th Massachusetts Colored Cavalry, Company F. He served with the Army around Richmond, VA, until he was discharged in October 1864 because of illness. In August 1866, Fitzgerald moved to Amelia County, VA., where he conducted a school for freedmen until September 1867, when he returned to school at Lincoln University. In November  of that year, he decided to return to the South and in January 1868, moved to Hillsborough where he conducted a school for freedmen. He saw himself as “a soldier in a ‘second war,’ this time against ignorance.”[1]

Life in North Carolina

Soon after arriving in Hillsborough, he partnered with a tanning business with Heywood Beverly, working at the tannery after school hours. In March of 1869, he purchased the Woodside Plantation, six miles east of Hillsborough, with family members he convinced to move to Orange County. Fitzgerald built a new freedman’s school on the property, and started a brick-making business with his brother Richard, while continuing to teach at the school he founded. He also taught at a larger state-supported school in what is now Durham County. He was passionate about his mission in education as a result of the thirst for education which he saw in the freed slaves and their children that he encountered: “Whatever else the freedmen lacked, there was in them a fierce hunger for knowledge. They believed, as perhaps no other people had believed so fervently, that knowledge would make them truly free, for had their masters taken great pains to withhold it from them?”[2]

Later, he also operated a tannery, established a brick making kiln in partnership with his brother, and began farming. In both Virginia and North Carolina, Fitzgerald was active in the Union League and the Republican party. 

Fitzgerald was “concerned with the plight of the Southern Black.”[4] He erected the largest brick structure in Durham, and joined with his brother Richard in establishing the first African-American bank, which became the Mechanics and Farmers Bank. He also helped establish the Coleman Manufacturing Company, a cotton mill owned and operated by Blacks. He also participated in starting an African-American insurance company. 

In 1869 Robert Fitzgerald married Cornelia Smith (1844-1924) of Chapel Hill, NC. They had six children. As Fitzgerald aged, he gradually lost his eyesight and retired to the family home in Durham. He died near Durham on August 4, 1919. 

Robert and Cornelia were the maternal grandparents of civil rights and women’s rights activist, lawyer, and first female Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray. She was raised by Robert and Cornelia, as well as her aunt Pauline, in the Fitzgerald home on Carroll Street in Durham, which was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 2016 (above).[3] 

Pauli Murray wrote extensively about her grandparents, as well as issues of race in Durham in her book Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family.