Many Duke visitors will be surprised to see a small cemetery tucked among the parking lots east of Wallace Wade Stadium. Surrounded by a low wall, the gravestones belong to the Rigsbee family and some date from over a century ago. This quiet piece of private property seems incongruous with the bustling atmosphere of Duke’s West Campus. However, the Rigsbee family and Duke University have been linked since 1925. The story of the Rigsbees is also the story of Duke’s growth on the West Campus.
The Rigsbees were a large and prosperous Durham family from 1830 onward. Jesse Rigsbee and his wife Mary kept their home and farmed two hundred acres of land where Duke facilities now stand. The couple had four daughters and four sons. All of the male children fought in the Civil War, and Jack Rigsbee died in battle. His body was sent home to his family, and he was buried in what became the Rigsbee Graveyard. His brother, T. J., came back to the homestead and, with his wife Nancy, expanded on the family’s property. He built a log cabin where Duke Hospital now stands. After his death in 1917, followed by his son’s death in 1924, the family’s heirs decided to sell the land.
The deed signed on February 25, 1925 formally transferred the Rigsbees’ property to Duke University. After the details of the property’s dimensions were listed, a paragraph reads, “There is excepted from the foregoing property one-fourth acre of land within brick enclosure designated as the Rigsbee burying ground, and it is understood and agreed that the Rigsbee family shall have the right of ingress, egress, and regress over such part of said land as may be reasonably necessary for burying their dead and for maintaining, repairing and otherwise providing for the up-keep of side burying ground.” This clause requires the Rigsbee family descendents to care for the property.
As the cemetery is still private property, the University makes arrangements to provide access to the family. Although the stadium was built and the fields around the graveyard were turned into parking lots, the T.J. Rigsbee Family Graveyard remains untouched. The Durham Morning Herald printed a story about the Rigsbee Graveyard on February 2, 1947. The article concluded with a musing on T.J. Rigsbee: “It is food for thought to speculate upon his feelings if he were to waken and look about him at the wonderful things that have been wrought on his homeplace.” Indeed, he could hardly have imagined what Duke University was to become in the twenty-first century on the land where he farmed and raised his family.
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