Trinity College at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Trinity College entranceThe foundations of the University are evident in President John C. Kilgo's Report to the Trustees in 1900. The well-documented move of Trinity College to Durham includes an understanding of the hard times caused by the dramatic change and unexpected national economic depression of 1893. How quickly the college rebounded and fulfilled the high expectations of the move is less well understood. President Kilgo devoted his annual report to the Board of Trustees in 1900 to a retrospective view of the development of the college during the 1890s. His report is a most interesting document in the history of Duke University.

Kilgo began by characterizing previous President John F. Crowell's administration as "a reformation under adverse circumstances" but "a signal success." He noted that Trinity's transformation of place and spirit helped reform Southern higher education. He was thankful for such a foundation when he became president in September, 1894.

By the turn of the century the physical changes were dramatic and easily observable. The number of buildings increased from 10 to 20 with those devoted to teaching purposes increasing from 2 to 11. Every addition was a cause for pride. The Scientific Building had 8 new labs, (4 in physics, 3 in chemistry and 1 in biology), with $13,000 worth of carefully selected apparatus. A gymnasium was added to support a physical education program for the expressed purpose of the total development of all students. Kilgo also noted the great amount of effort and expenditure in grading, paving and beautifying the ever increasing campus grounds. In total, the valuation of the buildings increased from $200,000 in 1895 to $725,000 in 1900. Almost single-handedly, Washington Duke's donations increased endowment from $22,500 to $333,750, possibly the second largest endowment of a private Southern college.

A new library, under construction in 1900, met the greatest need. In Randolph County, President Crowell took the significant step of merging the libraries of rival literary societies into a single college collection. In Durham, John Spencer Bassett, Professor of History and Manager of the Library, led the faculty in making the library the center of all academic activity. President Kilgo, believing the library to be the "one measure of the future development of the college," persuaded James B. Duke to make his first donation to Trinity a library building plus $10,000 for books. Even though the current holdings were only 15,000 books, the new library was constructed with a capacity of 100,000 volumes. Within eight years Trinity clearly emerged as one of the regions outstanding colleges in physical plant and endowment.

Kilgo knew the reputation of the college rested upon the quality of students and faculty. One of the most significant initiatives was to radically increase entrance requirements and remove college preparatory instruction from the responsibility of Trinity's faculty. Consequently, a secondary preparatory school, Trinity Park School, was opened on the northwest corner of the campus. This risky move resulted in a drop in college enrollment but it clearly established high academic standards. It also greatly increased the percentage of college matriculants who graduated. Of great importance, it positioned Trinity College as a leader in formulating standards for accreditation in both secondary and higher education. It was clear that Trinity's commitment to quality was not mere lip service when it became a founding member of the Association of Colleges and Preparatory Schools of the Southern States.

When Kilgo became president, the faculty numbered nine. By 1900 there were 29 faculty, 23 in the college and 6 in the preparatory school. Their training came from 15 different schools as varied as Tulane, the U.S. Naval Academy, Harvard, Cornell, Kansas, Johns Hopkins, and Leipzig. Neither did the faculty have a desire to retreat to an ivory tower. Trinity Faculty Lecture Series were begun in Charlotte, N. C. and in Saint Josephs African Methodist Episcopal Church in Durham. Kilgo, himself, had spoken on education in 69 of the 97 counties in the state by 1900.

Trinity also eliminated the undergraduate Ph.B. degree, believing it to be substandard. In graduate work residency and specific course requirements were added to upgrade the MA degree. Graduate enrollment increased from 1 to 18, prompting Kilgo to say "no other single change in the college promises better results."

In conclusion, Kilgo noted that there was no more gratifying indication of the spirit of the college than that over six years 25 per cent of the graduates were enrolled in or arranging additional education. By vocation, the graduates during his tenure to date numbered 34 teachers, 23 preachers, 15 businessmen, 10 graduate students, 7 doctors, 7 lawyers, 2 electrical engineers, 2 farmers, and 1 each in architecture, manufacturing and government employment.

Kilgo believed the character and spirit of the college to be grounded in individual personal faith, a strong belief in freedom, service to mankind, high standards, and loyalty. These ideals represented the fruition of the labors of Braxton Craven and John F. Crowell, and the foundation of future decisions by William P. Few and his successors. By 1900, even before the famous Bassett Affair affirming academic freedom, a clear foundation was set for later milestones such as Rhodes Scholars, a Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and even university status.


© 1992, 1997. 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.