A History of Durham, North Carolina


Durham County Court House - Durham, North Carolina

The city of Durham began as a railroad station and settlement named for Dr. Bartlett Snipes Durham. While the official birthdate is April 16, 1855 when the U.S. Post Office at Durhams was established, the town was not incorporated until April 10, 1869. The tobacco manufacturing industry focused worldwide attention on the area after the American Civil War. As a result of that thriving business, Durham grew and prospered tremendously and was named the county seat when the new Durham County was established in 1881.


Durham has a colorful and eventful history. Long before it was named Durham in the 1800s, it was the site of pivotal events.

Long before the Bull City was named for Dr. Bartlett Snipes 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 II. Early settlers built gristmills, such as West Point, and worked the land.

Prior to the American Revolution, frontiersmen in what is now Durham were involved in the “War of Regulation.” According to legend, the colonial militia under Royal Governor William Tryon cut what later became Cornwallis Road through this area in 1771 to quell the rebellion. Later, William Johnston, a local shopkeeper and farmer, forged Revolutionary ammunition, represented the town of Hillsborough in the Fourth Provincial Congress in April of 1776 and the Fifth Provincial Congress in November of 1776, 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 Snipes Durham, for whom the city is named, provided land for a new station on the newly-chartered North Carolina Railroad route.

Due to a disagreement between plantation owners and farmers, North Carolina was the penultimate state to secede from the Union at the beginning of the American Civil War. Durhamites fought in several North Carolina regiments. Seventeen days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox, Union General William T. Sherman and Confederate General Joseph Johnston negotiated the largest surrender and the end of the Civil War at Bennett Place in Durham.

After the ceasefire in Durham, Union and Confederate troops celebrated together and discovered bright leaf tobacco—with a taste that led to the ultimate 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 1887, 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 was renamed 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.

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.”

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–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 rallying cry “Fill up the jails,” during a speech at White Rock Baptist Church.

Advocating non-violent 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.”

In the 1950s–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, nearly 140 major research and development companies, including Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline, IBM, Underwriters Laboratories, and agencies such as the EPA, employ more than 45,000 people.

The origin of Durham’s nickname, the “Bull City,” has nothing to do with cattle!

John Green of the Blackwell Tobacco Company named his product "Bull Durham" Tobacco after Colman’s Mustard, which used a bull in its logo and which Green mistakenly thought was produced in Durham, England.

By the time James B. Duke of the American Tobacco Company purchased the Blackwell Tobacco Company in 1898, Bull Durham was the most famous trademark in the world. It sparked such popular phrases as “bullpen” (from a Bull Durham ad painted behind the Yankees’ dugout) and “shooting the bull” (most likely from chewing tobacco). The famous bull’s image was painted all over the world, including on the Great Pyramid of Egypt.

Duke put cigarette cards, predecessors of modern baseball cards, into each pack of tobacco. By the 1930s, they were immensely popular, and today they are much sought-after collectors’ items.


Herndons was granted a U.S. Post Office in Orange County on November 29, 1827, and its first Postmaster was William R. Herndon. On January 23, 1836, the name was changed to Prattsburg, and its first Postmaster was William N. Pratt. On April 16, 1855, the name was changed to Durhams, and its first Postmaster was J.G. Angier. On March 28, 1878, the name was changed to simply Durham, and its first Postmaster was Dewitt C. Mangum. The Post Office known as Durham was now in Durham County in 1881. It has been in continuous operation ever since inception.


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