Duke University dates its origin as an educational institution from 1838. Like many other schools, it has had name changes, as well as a major geographic relocation during its history. For obvious reasons, therefore, one can be confused about Duke's history. For example, the University Archives has programs on file for the celebration of a one hundredth anniversary in 1938-39 and a fiftieth anniversary in 1974-75! To further compound the issue, we held a centennial observance of the opening of Trinity College in Durham in 1992. No wonder that upon accepting the provisions of James B. Duke's Indenture of Trust in 1924 the Board of Trustees noted "the institution changes again to meet changing conditions."
The individual who founded the school and set it on its course was Brantley York, a noted nineteenth century educator, preacher, lecturer, and author. The setting was the fertile rolling hill country of piedmont North Carolina in northwest Randolph County approximately seventy-five miles west of Durham. By the 1830s, farmers in this area were beginning to experience prosperity through developing markets in eastern North Carolina and in South Carolina. Populated by a growing middle class of hard-working, devout Methodists and Quakers, the leading families greatly desired schooling for their children.
In the manner of the day, there were isolated one-room schoolhouses used occasionally when a teacher might appear, much like the traveling ordained circuit riders that represented organized religion. Sometime in the early 1830s one farmer, John Brown, built such a school that was used intermittently. By 1838, community leaders sought a teacher who would locate permanently and provide continuous education.
From nearby Bush Creek, Brantley York was one of their own. Captivated by the excitement of learning, York was largely self-taught, having attended school only thirteen months in a ten-year period. Yet by age nineteen, he was reading one thousand pages a week through the lending library of Ebenezer Methodist Church. At the time he was contacted about teaching at Brown's Schoolhouse, York was seeking ordination as a Methodist minister. He began teaching in the spring of 1838. The need was correctly perceived for the school had to be moved into a new building by August. With sixty-nine students York also had to have an assistant as well.
By February 1839, York engineered the organization of an educational society to provide governance and financial support. Yet another building was built, this time to be called Union Institute, so named not for patriotic reasons but because of the uniting of Methodist and Quaker interests in education. Incorporated as an academy in 1841, the school later became Normal College in 1851, Trinity College in 1859, and, after removal to Durham in 1892, Duke University in 1924. The University selected 1838 as its origin because from that date there has been an uninterrupted progression of educational growth and service.
Despite blindness that developed by age forty-eight, York had discovered his calling as a founder of schools. After leaving Union Institute in 1842, he founded six more schools in five counties. He also published a popular series of English grammars plus a book of practical applied arithmetic and legal forms. He was a popular revival preacher and temperance lecturer as well. Late in life before his death at age eighty-six, York estimated that he had preached or lectured over 8,000 times and taught more than 15,000 students.
In an interesting coincidence, sentiments stated in the preamble to the Union Institute Society and James B. Duke's Indenture of Trust are quite similar. Written in 1839 by Brantley York, those joining to provide educational opportunity in Randolph County did so ". . . possessing no small share of philanthropy and patriotism, and believing that ignorance and error were not only the bane of religions but also of civil society." Without knowledge of the Society's statement, the Duke Indenture expressed the same idea in stating that "education . . . is next to religion, the greatest civilizing influence." "Education," "religion," and concern for "civil society" are words in harmony although expressed eight-five years apart. While "changing to meet changing conditions" is a hallmark of the institution, "guidance by the same controlling faiths" is not uncommon either.
- Chaffin, Nora Campbell. Trinity College, 1839-1892: The Beginnings of Duke University. Durham: Duke University Press, 1950. (catalog record)
- York, Brantley. The Autobiography of Brantley York. Second printing, Charles Mathis, ed. Jonesville, NC: Amanuensis Two, 1977. (catalog record) (digital copy via Documenting the American South).
- Brantley York Records and Papers, 1838-1966 (view this collection guide)
- Duke University's Presidents (visit this online exhibit)
- Photos related to Brantley York on Flickr