Fire damages historic house of pioneering Black doctor in Durham’s Hayti neighborhood

A house built for a prominent doctor more than a century ago in Durham’s Hayti neighborhood was badly damaged by fire late Sunday night.

The long-time home of Dr. Joseph Napoleon Mills on Fayetteville Street has been a regular stop on historic walking tours of the neighborhood. The house was built sometime before 1920 and survived when many other large homes in the neighborhood did not.

The house was undergoing renovation when someone reported the fire about 9:15 p.m. Sunday. When the first fire crew arrived, flames were shooting from the roof, according to Bryan Baker, a division chief for the Durham Fire Department.

The fire was concentrated in the attic of the two-story house and took about 15 minutes to bring under control, Baker wrote in an email. One firefighter who suffered a minor burn was treated on the scene. The cause remains under investigation.

Worked at Lincoln Hospital, Mutual Life Insurance

Born in Onslow County, Mills graduated from Leonard Medical School at Shaw University in Raleigh and was one of Durham’s first African-American doctors. In addition to private practice, he worked at Lincoln Hospital, the N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co. and what is now N.C. Central University, just a few blocks down Fayetteville Street from his home.

His death in 1962 at age 82 was front page news in The Carolina Times, Durham’s Black-owned and operated newspaper.

The home last sold in 2021 to Greene Solutions LLC. Real estate listings at the time described the 2,900-square-foot house as a “perfect restoration project” that was “structurally sound but boarded up for security reasons.” It looked better on the inside than it did on the outside, the listings said.

According to a Facebook post from the Museum of Durham History, a previous owner had contemplated tearing the house down but that Preservation Durham persuaded it not to.

The Durham Report

Get headlines and updates about the Bull City in The Durham Report, a free weekly digest delivered to your inbox every Thursday, featuring stories by our local journalists. Sign up for our newsletter here. For even more Durham-focused news and conversation, join our Facebook group "The Story of my Street."