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Duke University traces its origins to a small school that opened in 1838 in Randolph County, North Carolina. Originally a preparatory school for young men called the Union Institute Academy, it was then chartered as a teaching college named Normal College by the state of North Carolina in 1851. The school underwent another transformation in 1859 when it turned to the Methodist Church for financial support. Reflecting the new partnership, the school’s name changed to Trinity College. 

From 1842 to 1882, Braxton Craven served as the principal and then president of the institution, overseeing its transition from a tiny schoolhouse to a full-fledged college. Shortly before his death, he helped to establish the Cherokee Industrial School at Trinity College, one of numerous schools established in the United States to “westernize” indigenous students, in this case boys and young men from the Eastern Band of the Cherokee. The School at Trinity lasted only a few years. It is worth noting that Craven enslaved several Black people prior to the Civil War, and that a number of other faculty and trustees were also enslavers.

John F. Crowell, Trinity College’s president from 1887-1894, suggested that moving the college to an urban setting would attract more students, faculty, and financial support. With Crowell’s encouragement, the trustees agreed to move the college, and after a spirited competition among regional cities, Trinity opened in Durham in 1892. Local tobacco magnates Washington Duke and Julian S. Carr assisted in providing land and money to Trinity. In 1897, at Washington Duke’s request, the school began admitting women as regular students, making it an early co-educational institution. Carr’s support for Trinity College was recognized with a building named in his honor in 1930. His name was removed in 2018 in light of his virulent white supremacist beliefs and actions.

Trinity prospered in its new location, and in 1924 the school was again transformed through philanthropy. Washington Duke’s son James Buchanan Duke established the Duke Endowment, and the charitable foundation infused the college with funds. The trustees changed Trinity College’s name to Duke University as a memorial to his father. The new funds supported the construction of a new campus, designed in a Gothic style by the Philadelphia architectural firm of Horace Trumbauer. The chief designer of West Campus, as well as the re-envisioned East Campus, was Julian Abele, a Black architect whose role in creating the architecture of Duke University was largely overlooked during his lifetime. In 2016, the main quad on West Campus was renamed Abele Quad in his honor.  

President William P. Few (1910-1940) oversaw this metamorphosis of a small college into a complex university. In 1930, the Trinity College site (today’s East Campus) became the Woman’s College, while the West Campus served as the grounds for the all-male Trinity College. In 1972, Trinity College merged both colleges of men and women into what is now known as Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. Other schools include the School of Religion and Graduate School founded in 1926, the School of Medicine and hospital in 1930, and the School of Nursing in 1931. Originally established in 1904, the Law School reorganized in 1930. In 1938, what is today’s Nicholas School of the Environment opened, and in 1939 the university formed what is now known as the Pratt School of Engineering. The last of James B. Duke’s desires for the university was fulfilled when what is now the Fuqua School of Business, opened in 1969. The Sanford School of Public Policy became Duke’s tenth school in 2005. The school was named for President Terry Sanford, formerly the governor of North Carolina, who supported a number of initiatives in the 1970s and 1980s to build Duke’s reputation for excellence, growing the university’s national and international profile.  

Long a segregated institution, Duke first admitted Black graduate and professional students in 1961 and Black undergraduates in 1963. In 1968, a major student protest known as the Vigil demanded pay increases and better treatment of hourly workers, most of whom were Black. In 1969, Black students protested in what is now known as the Allen Building Takeover, demanding improved services and treatment for Black students. The protest resulted in the formation of what is now called the Department of African and African American Studies. 

Faculty at Duke produce influential scholarship across a wide range of disciplines and professions. Two Duke faculty members have received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Professor  Robert Lefkowitz in 2012 and Professor Paul Modrich in 2015. Duke researchers have mapped the human chromosome and led research into the treatment of HIV and AIDS. Duke faculty also research pressing social issues, producing high-impact scholarship on such topics as election districting and public health. Faculty authors have written books of award-winning nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, and have won awards ranging from the National Book Award to the Pulitzer Prize. Fifty Duke faculty are members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Duke students have many opportunities to work with leading faculty in labs and on projects, ensuring hands-on experience during their course of study.

Duke has a number of notable athletic achievements. Best known is the men’s basketball team, coached by Mike Krzyzewski since 1980. The team has earned 5 national championships. The women’s golf team holds the record at Duke for most national championships, at 7. Duke football has been played since the 1880s, when President Crowell coached the team himself. During the 1930s and 1940s, the football team competed in and won a number of bowl games, earning the nickname “Iron Dukes.” The Rose Bowl game of 1942 was played in Durham due to wartime concerns on the West Coast and remains the only Rose Bowl played outside of Pasadena, California.

International programs have expanded over the last several decades, bringing international students to Duke in Durham and expanding international opportunities for Duke students. In 2005, Duke partnered with the National University of Singapore and opened the Duke-NUS Medical School. In 2014, graduate programs at Duke Kunshan University began, followed by undergraduate programs in 2018. DKU is a partnership between Duke and Wuhan University in Kunshan, China. 

The university has changed in many ways since its founding, and like other historically white schools it continues to confront issues of racism, sexism, and other inclusion and equity challenges. Students of color and international students now represent more than 50% of the student body. Duke’s hometown of Durham has also grown and changed, and Duke and Durham collaborate on topics ranging from community service to downtown development. 

Ever evolving, Duke University strives to meet the stated aims of the university: “to foster a lively relationship between knowledge and faith; to advance learning in all lines of truth; to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a love of freedom and truth; to promote a respectful spirit of dialogue and understanding; to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife; and to further the advancement of knowledge in service to society.”

For more information about Duke history, visit the University Archives in the David M. Rubenstein Library: /rubenstein/uarchives.  


Updated September 21, 2020