Desperate Times: Trinity College and the Freedmen's Bureau

Retrospective: Selections from University Archives
Writer: 
June 1, 2010
Proof positive: Recently discovered documents link Trinity College to charitable

Proof positive: Recently discovered documents link Trinity College to charitable food distribution to freed slaves. Credit. Duke University Archives

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States and former university librarian, recently uncovered a footnote to Duke's early history. While touring the National Archives with some visiting dignitaries, Ferriero noticed the words "Trinity College" and "Randolph County" written on some documents. The records were from the Freedmen's Bureau and identified the college as an aid distribution center for freed slaves. That Trinity College, with its Quaker and Methodist roots, would open its facilities to help the regional African-American population is not surprising. Yet until Ferriero's discovery, this episode was unknown even to those most familiar with Duke's history.

The records document that a man named W.R. Frazer, a local landowner, distributed corn and pork to some ninety former slaves in 1867. A check of the early Trinity College records offers only a hint about this activity. The papers of Braxton Craven—president of Trinity and its predecessor institutions, Union Institute and Normal College—contain an 1866 legal document recording the lease of a house, outbuildings, and adjoining land from Frazer to O.W. Carr, a professor at Trinity. The house and land were located next to campus, which would have been convenient for Carr, who had just returned to the Trinity faculty after serving in the Confederate army.

The lease notes that Carr intended to use the land to raise corn, presumably to supplement his meager salary from the college, which struggled to stay financially solvent in the postwar period. Frazer, however, reserved the use of the smokehouse on the property so that he could continue to cure pork. This suggests that the land may have been one of the sources for provisions given to the freed slaves, which, Frazer notes, were "issued to prevent actual starvation."

Trinity College, like the surrounding area, recovered slowly during Reconstruction. The hardships suffered and the altered postwar economy would ultimately lead the school to move to Durham in 1892.
 
Proof positive: Recently discovered documents link Trinity College to charitable 
Proof positive: Recently discovered documents link Trinity College to charitable