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Durham History

Durham has a colorful and eventful history. It was the site of pivotal events long before it was even a recognized place.

Native Americans

Long before the Bull City was named for Dr. Bartlett Durham in the 1800s, the community was making history. Before Europeans arrived, two Native American tribes - the Eno and the Occaneechi, related to the Sioux - lived and farmed here. Durham is thought to be the site of an ancient Native American village named Adshusheer. The Great Indian Trading Path is traced through Durham, and Native Americans helped to mold Durham by establishing settlement sites, transportation routes, and environmentally friendly patterns of natural resource use.


In 1701, Durham's beauty was chronicled by the explorer John Lawson, who called the area "the flower of the Carolinas." During the mid-1700s, Scots, Irish, and English colonists settled on land granted to John Carteret, Earl of Granville, by King Charles I (for whom the Carolinas are named). Early settlers built gristmills, such as West Point, and worked the land.

Revolutionary War

Prior to the American Revolution, frontiersmen in what is now Durham were involved in the War of Regulators. According to legend, Loyalist militia cut Cornwallis Road through this area in 1771 to quell the rebellion. Later, William Johnston, a local shopkeeper and farmer, forged Revolutionary ammunition, served in the Provincial Capital Congress in 1775, and helped underwrite Daniel Boone's westward explorations.


During the period between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, large plantations such as Hardscrabble, Cameron, and Leigh were established. By 1860, Stagville Plantation lay at the center of one of the largest plantation holdings in the South. African slaves were brought to labor on these farms and plantations, and slave quarters became the hearth of distinctively Southern cultural traditions involving crafts, social relations, life rituals, music, and dance. There were free African Americans in the area as well, including several who fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1849, Dr. Bartlett Durham, for whom the city is named, provided land for a railroad station.

War Between the States

Due to a disagreement between plantation owners and farmers, North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union. Durhamites fought in several North Carolina regiments. Seventeen days after Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, the Union's General Sherman and the Confederacy's General Johnston negotiated the largest surrender and the end of the Civil War at Bennett Place in Durham.

Tobacco & Mills

After the ceasefire in Durham, Yankee and Rebel troops celebrated together and discovered Brightleaf tobacco - a taste that led to the success of Washington Duke and his family and spawned one of the world's largest corporations (which included American Tobacco, Liggett & Meyers, R. J. Reynolds, and P. Lorillard). Tobacco soon inspired other Durham developments. The first mill to produce denim and the world's largest hosiery maker were established in Durham during this time.


In 1892, Trinity College moved from Randolph County to Durham. Washington Duke and Julian Carr donated money and land to facilitate the move. Following a $40 million donation by Washington Duke's son, James Buchanan Duke, Trinity College expanded into Duke University in 1924. In 1910, Dr. James E. Shepard founded North Carolina Central University, the nation's first publicly supported liberal arts college for African Americans.

African-American Enterprise

After the Civil War, the African-American economy progressed through a combination of vocational training, jobs, land ownership, business ownership, and community leadership. In 1898, John Merrick founded North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which today is the largest and oldest African American-owned life insurance company in the nation. With its founding in 1907, M&F Bank became one of the nation's strongest African American-owned and -managed bank. So many other businesses joined these two in Durham's Parrish Street neighborhood that the area became famous across the country as Black Wall Street. Learn more about Durham's African American heritage.

Civil Rights

The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, organized in 1935 by C. C. Spaulding and Dr. James E. Shepard, has been cited nationally for its role in the sit-in movements of the 1950s and ‘60s. The committee also has used its voting strength to pursue social and economic rights for African Americans and other ethnic groups.

In the late 1950s, Reverend Douglas Moore, minister of Durham's Asbury Temple Methodist Church, along with other religious and community leaders, pioneered sit-ins throughout North Carolina to protest discrimination at lunch counters that served only whites. A sit-in at a Woolworth's counter in Greensboro, NC, captured the nation's attention. Within days, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met Reverend Moore in Durham, where Dr. King coined his famous "fill up the jails" rallying cry during a speech at White Rock Baptist Church.

Advocating nonviolent confrontation with segregation laws for the first time, Dr. King said, "Let us not fear going to jail. If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights, we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South." Learn more about Durham's African American heritage.

Research Triangle Park

In the 1950s and ‘60s, what is now the world's largest university-related research park and namesake for the vast Triangle region was carved from Durham pinelands as a special Durham County tax district. Research Triangle Park (RTP) is encompassed on three sides by the City of Durham, with a small portion now spilling into Wake County toward Cary and Morrisville. RTP scientists have developed everything from Astroturf to AZT and won Nobel Prizes in the process. Now, over 170 major research and development companies, including Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, Underwriters Laboratories, and agencies such as the EPA, employ more than 39,000 full-time employees.

Learn more about the history and architecture of Durham by consulting the North Carolina collection at the Durham County library.

Discover Durham
212 W Main St #101
Durham, NC 27701 USA
Phone: (919) 687-0288
Toll Free: (800) 446-8604