James B. Duke statue in front of Duke Chapel

In the early 1890s, Trinity College–the predecessor of Duke University–was in dire financial straits. Having barely survived the upheaval of the Civil War, the small Methodist College was struggling to attract students and faculty to its rural Randolph County campus. Recognizing the need for principled, high-quality education in the south, Durham industrialist Washington Duke stepped in to provide a financial lifeline for the college and support its transformational move to the Bull City in 1892.

To put the college on stable financial ground, Washington Duke offered $100,000 to the Trinity endowment, with one condition: that women be admitted as residential students “placing them on equal footing” with the male students. The year that Trinity moved to Durham, four women enrolled as day students; four years later, a women’s dormitory opened on Trinity’s campus.

Following Washington Duke’s example, his sons, Benjamin and James B., both established themselves as important benefactors of Trinity College. The family’s philanthropy–including hundreds of thousands of dollars donated by Benjamin to the Trinity endowment–helped make the college a leading liberal arts institution in the south and prepare it for its dramatic growth into a university.

That transformation of Trinity College into a university was facilitated by James B. Duke through an extraordinary bequest in 1924. The Indenture of Trust, which provided for the creation of Duke University and the Duke Endowment, specifically outlined the structure and mission of the university. This vision and the funds provided by Duke’s bequest that still support our work today.

In recognition of the Duke family’s many contributions to Trinity College, President William Preston Few in 1924 renamed the institution in honor of Washington Duke. This honor reflects their truly vital role in our institutional history–the Dukes not only gave this university its start, but their actions have supported everything that has come since.

The Duke family understood that by supporting this institution, they could turn their significant resources into an immeasurably larger return for both the region and the world. Their generosity quite literally built this campus, and everything we do here–every discovery made in our labs, every class taught by a distinguished faculty member, every life that is saved at the hospital–is a direct result of their original investment.