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North Carolina Travel Guide
Durham History

Durham, North Carolina is believed to be the site of an ancient Native American village named Adshusheer. But its glory days were  in the early 20th Century when it was the most successful African American community in America

Prominant members of Durham in 1904 In 1854 Dr. Bartlett Durham sold four acres of land to the North Carolina Railroad Company to build a new station between Hillsborough and Raleigh and before long a small settlement grew there which was to become the city of Durham. The first tobacco factory had opened in Durham in 1854 by R. F. Morris. Ten years later, In 1865 the armies of Union and Confederate forces gathered around Durham Station as General Joseph E. Johnston negotiated his surrender to General William T. Sherman at Bennett Place at the end of the Civil War. Union troops liked the taste of the local bright leaf tobacco. This began the growth of Durham's tobacco industry and led the city to prosperity. By 1880 Durham's population had grown to over 2000. Textile mills began to grow along the railroad lines and banks and insurance companies soon appeared as money flowed into the community.  

Duke, Durham, NC, cigarettes Residential neighborhoods grew around these industries as workers filled the town to work for tobacco companies owned by men like Washington Duke. Duke had begun his tobacco empire from a small log cabin on the Duke Homestead where he was producing around 125,000 pounds of smoking tobacco annually. In April 1874, Duke purchased two acres near the railroad where he built a new factory marking the beginning of a large scale tobacco company which climbed rapidly to the top of the industry. Cigarette making had been by hand, a tedious job done by eastern European immigrants who could roll about 4 a minute. Duke took a chance on a new machine that had been developed in 1880 by eighteen year old James Bonsack that could make around 200 cigarettes an hour (when working properly). After some  adjustments it was a success and Duke and his sons became major players in the world of tobacco. In 1890 they merged with their four largest competitors to form the American Tobacco Company and had a monopoly on tobacco products in the USA. When this trust was broken up by the US Supreme Court in 1911 four major companies emerged. They were Liggett and Myers, P. Lorillard, R. J. Reynolds and the American Tobacco Company.

In 1892 Trinity College moved to Durham from Randolf County to land donated by Washington Duke and Julian Carr. Following a 40 million dollar donation by James Buchanan Duke, son of Washington Duke, the college was renamed Duke in 1924.

Martin Luther King at Woolworth's in Durham, NC In 1898 John Merrick founded the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the oldest and largest African-American owned life insurance company in America. M&F Bank, founded in 1907 was the strongest African-American owned bank in the US. Both were located in the neighborhood of Parrish Street which soon attracted more African-American owned businesses and was known throughout the country as "Black Wall Street." In 1910  North Carolina Central University was founded by Dr. James E Shephard as the nations first publicly supported liberal arts college for African-Americans. Sit-ins were pioneered in Durham. During the civil rights era, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., made five public appearances in Durham. The most dramatic was on February 16, 1960 at the Durham Woolworth's in 1960. The historic lunch counter is on display at North Carolina Central University.

Durham, NC 1920 In 1910 the six story Trust Building on Main street was the tallest building in North Carolina. By the thirties a public works boom saw the construction of the Post Office, the Armory, Durham Athletic Park, the Snow Building and the CCB and Kress buildings as Durham products became known internationally and money flooded into the city. But as these companies grew and acquired more holdings many of them left the city and the center of Durham began to lose its vitality. By the seventies shopping malls and suburbs had drawn people away from downtown which was carved up by the Durham Freeway and the Downtown loop in a flawed attempt at 'urban renewal'.  

Brightleaf Square in Durham, NC The 1980s some of Durham's older neighborhoods began to be revitalized. Two old tobacco warehouses were restored creating the Brightleaf Square shopping center. The old Carolina Theatre was also restored and became a center for live performances and films. The Historic Preservation Society of Durham was founded in 1974 to preserve Durham's architectural heritage and people began buying old houses in various neighborhoods. In the years since many of the tobacco warehouses, factories and mills have been converted into shopping centers, condominiums, restaurants and offices. The Single A Durham Bulls baseball team, made famous by the film Bull Durham  (actually they were one of the top drawing minor league teams before the movie ever came out) left their old park to a new  $16-million brick ballpark in 1995 and the Bulls began playing in the Triple-A International League.

Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Durham, NC An important part of Durham's history is its music. From the twenties to the forties Durham was known for their distinctive regional style of blues, known as Bull Durham Blues. Musicians like Blind Boy Fuller, legendary guitarist Rev Gary Davis and the harp-guitar duo of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee , whose music influenced generations of other blues players, used to perform in the Hayti area and in the tobacco warehouse neighborhoods downtown. This style is kept alive not only by those younger musicians who have embraced it but by the annual Bull City Blues Festival during the first weekend of September and features local and internationally known blues musicians ata three-day festival. In the seventies and eighties Durham was once again a center for music, this time with jazz  musicans like Brother Yusef SalimBus Brown, Eve Cornelious and more recently Nneena Freelon who has now gained national recognition. The North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra   founded in 1993 by James Ketch and Gregg Gelb and sponsored by the North Carolina Jazz Foundation, has established a name for itself as one of the leading repertory orchestras in the country and Duke music professor John Brown has become one of the most respected bass players and band leaders in the USA.

The loss of industry was certainly a big blow to the city of Durham, but the success of Duke University in academics and sports (particularly basketball), the growth of the Duke University Medical center and other hospitals and health services, not to mention nearby Research Triangle Park and North Carolina Central University is more than enough to off-set the losses and mistakes of the past. The attraction of the downtown with its empty warehouses and lofts to artists, dancers, musicans and  restaurateurs have made the city a good bet for investors. In the near future, if not right now Durham should begin to look and feel like the exciting place it once was. With a vibrant international and artistic community, the people of Durham are ready. The question is, are the city's leaders?

See also: Things to do in Durham, Restaurants, Durham Hotels, Duke University, Annual Events, Durham Photo Album 

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