Retro: The Living Memory of the Duke Homestead

The gift to the university allowed the family's women to reinforce the family's values.
December 16, 2016

As a popular cultural attraction in North Durham, the Duke Homestead offers residents and visitors a chance to explore the beginnings of the Duke family’s remarkable tobacco business. What most visitors do not realize, however, is that the homestead was part of the university for more than forty years.

Duke Homestead first became directly tied to the university when it was acquired in 1930 as part of a campaign called the Duke Memorial. The Duke Memorial was a fundraising effort to honor the three best-known Dukes: Washington and his sons, James and Benjamin, the latter having died the previous year. As part of the campaign, Mary Duke Biddle, daughter of Benjamin Duke, provided $50,000 to allow the university, through the Duke Memorial, to acquire the property. It had not been lived in by the Duke family for decades at that point, but its emotional connection to the family was unbroken.

The university spent several years making repairs to the structures and building an access road. The house was furnished with donations of materials; a few related to the Duke family directly, but most were pieces from around 1860.

The university celebrated the public opening of the homestead during the 1935 commencement. The Duke Alumni Register in May 1935 described the alumni visits to the Homestead on commencement weekend as a “pilgrimage,” noting that “in the years to come it bids fair to become a shrine to which other thousands will go to pay tribute to members of the Duke family.” Mary Duke Biddle was present at the ceremony to symbolically “give” the homestead to Duke.

In 1966, the university received word that the National Park Service had agreed to designate the Duke Homestead as a National Historical Site. The formal dedication of the site took place on April 28, 1968—on that day, the Durham Herald ran an article, “Duke Home Will Become Historical Shrine Today.”

Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans ’39, the daughter of Mary Duke Biddle, spoke at the event about her great-grandfather, reflecting not only on his work but also on his beliefs. “Having lived through a period of dissension,” she said, “Washington Duke had the conviction that partisan and sectional hatred must be put aside, which caused him to join the weak political minority. This had the effect of developing a catholicity of feeling, and distinct racial understanding.”

Her powerful words pay a fitting tribute to her great-grandfather and would have been appropriate in any year. Yet the day on which she delivered her address, April 28, was a little more than three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In response to the assassination and in protest of low wages for hourly workers on campus, students held a multi-day Silent Vigil on the Chapel Quad. The statue of James B. Duke then, as today, looks out over the quad.

As a trustee of Duke University, Mary Semans would have been intimately involved in discussions about the student and employee unrest. She also had long been an advocate of civil and human rights. With this in mind, her words begin to take on meaning with the events of 1968 as well as 1868.

The Duke Memorial focused on the work of three extraordinary men. Yet it was two women, Mary Duke Biddle and Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, who made it possible to preserve the family’s history and carry their values forward. The women in the Duke family usually have not been considered part of the business enterprise or as critical players in the family’s success. And the documentation of their work, interests, and activities is scant compared to the voluminous letterbooks of J. B. and Ben held in the Rubenstein Library. However, they played a vital role, especially in maintaining a deep connection between the Duke family and Durham, and between the Duke family and its philanthropic interests.

Gillispie is the university archivist.

FD Connections: About 24,000 people visit the Duke Homestead State Historic Site and Tobacco Museum each year.