Durham's Bid to Win Over Trinity College

John Franklin CrowellIn March 1890, the Trinity College Board of Trustees met to accept Washington Duke's offer to relocate the College to Durham. That turn of events was surprising for three reasons. First, when President John F. Crowell initially broached the idea of relocating the college, the almost universal response was "the Methodist preachers would never allow it." Second, when cities competed for the college, Raleigh was selected as the new site. Third, while devout Methodists, the Duke family had demonstrated little interest in higher education as a focus of its philanthropy.

In 1887, when the twenty-nine year old Crowell became president of Trinity, the then fifty-year-old institution acquired a man of vision and self-confidence. The college itself consisted of a single impressive all-purpose building located seventy miles west of Durham in Randolph County. An affiliation with the Methodist Church provided most of its students. While proud of their institution the Methodists were more adept at launching campaigns to raise money than providing steady hard cash.

Crowell appealed to the pride and loyalty of the church and alumni to accomplish the relocation of the college. His guiding philosophy was to put "modern learning at the service of the people under the auspices of Christian truth." This active interjection of learning, religion and service into the popular consciousness could best be accomplished, he believed, in an urban setting. After all, there was neither a railroad, telegraph nor telephone within five miles of the college. He firmly believed that if the college were to survive the rapidly changing conditions of the New South and acquire prestige and power, growth was imperative. Such growth had failed to materialize in its rural setting.

Over the course of a year, Crowell's views gradually triumphed in a skillfully conducted debate in the official church bodies that were empowered to decide the issue. With the church on record as willing to move the college, the question shifted to which urban locales might be interested. The Trustees determined that it would take $20,500 to replace the present building plus a suitable site. Having recently been selected for the Baptist Female Seminary (now Meredith College), Raleigh was prepared to compete again. A site now occupied by N.C. State University was offered and citizens of Raleigh pledged $35,000 for a building. The Methodist Conference overwhelmingly voted approval.

Quietly, and unknown to President Crowell, Methodist ministers in Durham had been approaching Washington Duke on behalf of a significant benefaction to the church, presumably to Trinity College. Mary Duke Lyon, Duke's only daughter, wished for her father to remember the church as well. "For certain," Trustee H. J. Bass reported later, "the Dukes never made any considerable contribution without satisfying themselves that the cause was fully worthy of their aid." Indeed, unknown to college authorities Washington Duke had attended Trinity commencement the previous spring. In December 1889, Benjamin N. Duke, Washington's son, was elected to the Trinity Board of Trustees. Ben's election represented the honored tradition of recognizing dedicated, wealthy laymen and the historical record does not reveal whether it had any relation to the impending relocation of the school. Nevertheless it was a timely appointment.

After conference approval of the Raleigh site things moved swiftly in Durham. When Washington Duke's former pastor and then District Superintendent E. A. Yates told him of Raleigh's offer Duke casually remarked that Durham could match that and add $50,000 for endowment. Yates inquired if he could wire Crowell such an offer and immediately the college president was in Durham personally meeting Washington Duke for the first time. With a pledge from Duke of $85,000 in hand, Yates and Crowell hurried across town to ask their friend Julian S. Carr, long-time trustee and the largest benefactor of the college to date, if he would donate as a site the fair ground he owned on the western edge of the city. Carr agreed without hesitation.

When called to meet in Durham on March 20, the trustees accepted the offers from Duke and Carr with gratitude. The formal offer from Duke was signed by Washington but written by Benjamin. As further inducement citizens from Durham presented a check for $9,361 for endowment and the trustees enthusiastically proclaimed that with Duke's gift for endowment and a building, funds were ample for a solid beginning. Upon request a committee from Raleigh relinquished its claim and the Christian Advocate, the official organ of the church, proclaimed, "All Methodists could write the address Trinity College, Durham, North Carolina with pride."

The new beginning given Trinity College by Washington Duke in 1890 blossomed into another dramatic departure in 1924. That thrust into university status was based on the solid foundation of an outstanding liberal arts college and on the continued positive focus of the service of education to the church and especially to the region and nation as envisioned by President William P. Few and James B. Duke.


For Further Research

  • Chaffin, Nora Campbell. Trinity College, 1839-1892: The Beginnings of Duke University. Durham: Duke University Press, 1950. (catalog record)
  • Crowell, John Franklin. Personal Recollections of Trinity College, North Carolina, 1887-1894. Durham: Duke University Press, 1939. (catalog record)
  • Porter, Earl W. Trinity and Duke, 1892-1924. Durham: Duke University Press, 1964. (catalog record)
  • Board of Trustees Records, 1860-2004 (view this collection guide)
  • John Franklin Crowell Records and Papers, 1883-1932 and undated (view this collection guide)

© 1990. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002
This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.