Of Myths and History, or the Duke-Princeton "Connection"

One of our most persistent oral traditions is the oft repeated story that James B. Duke offered his significant gift to Princeton University if its trustees would change the name to Duke. They refused. Trinity College in Durham, North Carolina, agreed. Therefore, we are Duke University. Other versions that are not as prevalent substitute Yale or Georgetown for Princeton. Sometimes Duke's motivation is addressed by claiming he sought a tax advantage because of the then relatively new federal income tax legislation.

The origins of myths are difficult to pin down but this story perhaps begins with the legal language of the Indenture which established the Duke Endowment on December 11, 1924. Article Four of that legal document reads in part that $6,000,000 will be available to "establish an institution of learning to be known as Duke University." It further provides that if the name of Trinity College be changed1  to Duke University, then that institution in Durham, North Carolina, would receive the money. At the time the implied quid pro quo received more publicity than it merited in reality. Detractors could not resist claiming that Buck Duke had bought himself a university or bribed a college to memorialize himself.

Presumably Princeton entered the picture because Duke's private estate was nearby in Somerville, New Jersey. Duke had admired Princeton's architecture and as construction proceeded on the new Gothic campus in Durham, maybe similar styles in architecture somehow lent credence to a "Princeton connection." Nevertheless, Article Four of the Indenture clearly stated that the new university had to be in North Carolina, and that the name change was to be a memorial to Washington Duke, his father, and Benjamin, his brother, and to other family members who so largely contributed to the success of Trinity College since it relocated to Durham. The latter phrase perhaps could be interpreted as an indirect reference to his late sister, Mary, as well as to himself since he had donated a new library building plus $10,000 for books to Trinity College in 1903.

Fortunately the historical record in the University Archives is not as legalistic or obscure as the Indenture. The idea of building a university around Trinity College and changing the name to Duke is easily attributed to President William P. Few. With a dozen educational institutions named Trinity around the world, Few wanted a clear identity for the new university. James B. Duke reluctantly agreed to the name change.

Motivation, also, is not easily identified. However, the attachment of the Duke family to Trinity College can be dated from Benjamin's election to the Board of Trustees in 1889 and from Washington's donation of $85,000 in 1890 as the principal inducement to attract the college to Durham. Washington later donated $300,000 for endowment and Benjamin quietly began behind- the-scenes contributions to such a variety of Trinity endeavors that the total can never be calculated. Undoubtedly their primary motivation was stewardship as preached in the Methodist Church and Trinity benefited as a Methodist institution. The family's religious stewardship and loyalty to town and state were widely recognized and of long duration. That the brothers acted in concert with and deeply revered their father is a central theme of Robert F. Durden's definitive historical account, The Dukes of Durham. While James B. Duke was by far the most well known and wealthiest of the Dukes, his spectacular philanthropy in 1924 was part of a tradition rooted in his family, his church, and his native region. That tradition was more solidly anchored and it clearly predated any income tax legislation or move to New Jersey and passing acquaintance with Princeton University. How Yale has sometimes been substituted in the story is anybody's guess.

Oral traditions are an integral part of campus life but myths that distort history need to be refuted. Duke University has its own rich 152-year history that makes it the renowned institution it is today. Have you heard the story of the East Campus wall being ten feet high—three feet above ground and seven beneath? That is an entertaining story but it is not true either!

1. Trinity College still exists. As Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, it is an undergraduate college of Duke University. What changed names was not the school, but the "body politic and corporate," known as the Board of Trustees, which owns and runs it.

© 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.