Arts & Culture
6:00 am
Fri June 24, 2011

The Civil War And The Dukes

Washington Duke
Credit Duke Homestead

Before the Civil War, North Carolina was a poor, agrarian state. The people who lived here were renowned for their independence. It was a quality that would serve the state well after the war.

Washington Duke was a penniless, ambivalent Confederate soldier in the spring of 1865 when he was released from a Union prison in New Bern. Ahead of him was a 130 mile walk home to Durham - waiting for him there were 4 children, no wife, and a ransacked farm.

150 years later, the Duke name and legacy is everywhere. 

How the Dukes managed to build a fortune from nothing is part drive, part extraordinary business sense, and part good timing.

Before the war, Duke owned a moderate farm that included several slaves. He sold everything, including his slaves, before he went off to war. When he returned home, he and his two sons, Ben and James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, got the tobacco farm up and running. He was helped by a growing market, and his location.

David Carlton is an economic historian at Vanderbilt University. 

David Carlton: "Durham of course, had the advantage of having rail connections and was able to tap into a much, much larger market. This is one of the major changes you start seeing after the Civil War."

Within a few years, Washington Duke gave up farming and opened one of the first cigarette factories in Durham - an opportunity that would likely have been impossible in the antebellum south of his youth.

One of the key decisions the Dukes made at the time was what to put in that factory. Buck Duke was emerging as the dominant force within both the family and the industry, and he convinced the others that the best choice was to make machine-rolled cigarettes.

Robert Durden is a retired history professor at Duke University and the author of several books on the Duke family. He appeared in a promotional video for the Duke Endowment and talked about the key decision to use cigarette machines.

Robert Durden: "And of course that paid off very handsomely. Because within five years time, by 1890, Washington Duke and sons was the leading cigarette manufacturer in the nation."

But the choice to use the machines also revealed something else about the Dukes.

Economic historian David Carlton… 

Carlton: "I mean Duke was ruthless, he was sneaky, he was underhanded. You know, he cut a deal with the machine-maker to give him a kickback on all the cigarettes made by his competitors with their machines."

But Buck Duke’s ruthless business decisions also served to create jobs, especially among the poorest communities in the state. 

Carlton: "Tobacco was actually fairly well-paying, particularly for Blacks. And thus you get both in Winston-Salem and Durham very strong black communities. It forms the foundation for the famous Durham Black middle class."

By the turn of the century, The American Tobacco Company was a massive monopoly, manipulating prices, absorbing competitors, expanding overseas, and making 90 percent of the cigarettes produced in the country.

It was also at this time that the family became more philanthropic. They gave money to Methodist churches, hospitals, and schools, especially a small college in Randolph County called Trinity College.

Again, Robert Durden…

Durden: "In 1896 I think it was, Washington Duke told the president of Trinity College that he would give Trinity a hundred thousand dollars, which was a lot of money then, if he would admit women on an equal footing with men."

Washington Duke died in 1920 1905; four nineteen years later*, Trinity College, which had moved to Durham, was named in his honor. Buck Duke died in 1925, a year after creating the Duke Endowment.

The legacy of the Dukes is complicated.

Duke Energy relies on coal-fired power plants… as Duke University’s world-renowned environmental school does groundbreaking work in global warming.
One of Washington Duke’s daughters gave 22 of the original 25 acres to create North Carolina Central University… but Duke University didn’t admit an undergraduate black student until 1963.

Tobacco, the product the Dukes helped popularize and made them rich, kills more than 5-million people a year worldwide… the hospitals the Dukes built have saved countless lives.

Historian John Hope Franklin came to Duke in 1983 as the James Buchanan Duke professor of history. Franklin died in 2009, but before he did, he spoke to the Duke Endowment about Buck Duke. 

John Hope Franklin: "And when you see that he was looking to help children, to help the infirm, to help people seeking an education and people who wanted some solace in their religious life. That’s it. He comprehended the needs of the human being and he met those needs as best he could."

The Duke’s complicated and far-reaching legacy will continue for many years, but it began after a terrible war upended the southern economy - and allowed a driven, widowed father to create a better life for his family, after a long walk home.

Dave DeWitt reports on how the Civil War gave birth to the Duke empire for the final installment of our series, ''North Carolina Voices: The Civil War.''

*Note: This date was corrected after the story's original airing and posting.