Trinity College (Predecessor to Duke University)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

During the 1830s, Brantley York helped start Brown’s School in Trinity Township in Randolph County, about 20 miles south of Greensboro. In 1839, the school was renamed Union Institute in honor of the collaborative educational efforts among Methodist and Quaker educators in the area. Braxton Craven served as a teacher there until 1841. He then became school headmaster.

For decades, Craven struggled to raise the financial means to keep the school’s doors open. A decade later and under Craven’s direction, the school’s name changed to Normal College. The school helped meet the demand for qualified teachers. In 1859 the name changed to Trinity College, for Craven had successfully sought funding from the Methodist denomination.

During the two decades before the American Civil War, Braxton Craven used the teacher’s college as a forum for political discussion. Faculty criticized what they considered northern economic hegemony and called for southern economic independence.  Normal College (and later as Trinity College) hosted a lecture series that featured debates regarding slavery and the economic differences between the northern and southern regions.

In an 1860 speech at Trinity College, Craven argued that the southern states had never been free: “The Revolution broke our servitude to England and left the South subject to the North . . . it is time to commence business on our own resources,” the educator informed his audience. As a result of such speeches, Trinity College became a forum where speakers called for the industrialization of the South and the advent of the Market Revolution below the Mason-Dixon line.  

When war came in 1861, approximately forty Trinity students volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, so Trinity College administrators formed the Trinity Guard as an effort to keep students enrolled yet help the Confederate war effort. The Trinity Guard was a Home Guard unit that kept order in the Piedmont (an area divided between secessionists and unionists). For a few weeks during the first year of the war, Trinity students served as prison guards at the Salisbury Prison. The unit spent most of the time at Trinity in Randolph County, however.

Even after surviving the tumultuous war years, the institution continued struggling financially.  Wealthy Methodist businessmen rescued the institution from financial despair, however. After the 1882 death of Craven, President John F. Crowell transformed Trinity into a liberal-arts college rather than a normal school.

For another ten years, Trinity College remained in Randolph County.  In 1890, the college made a deal with Washington Duke: for $85,000 and 60 acres, Trinity College would move to Durham. In 1892, Trinity College moved to Durham and the Board of Trustees changed its name to Duke University.  In 1896, the Board of Trustees made another deal with Washington Duke: for a $100,000 endowment, the college admitted not only female students but also considered male and female enrollees as academic equals.   According to historian Robert Durden, the Duke family donations gradually turned the school into a top-notch liberal arts university.