Duke of the Carolinas (North and South Carolina)

  • Local Projects
  • 1924

James Duke was entirely committed to concentrating his philanthropy in the area where he grew up and then made good. In 1874, when he was 18, his parents opened a small tobacco factory in Durham, North Carolina. The market was tough, and Duke eventually convinced his family to start larger-scale machine production to outproduce the competition. By the early 1900s, he had built a global tobacco empire. Then he turned his attention to the brand new and booming industry of rural electrification. He wanted to use the waterways of the western Carolinas to provide inexpensive hydropower that could attract industry and speed economic growth in his poor region. His business vision for the Carolinas had a philanthropic component itself, as he was determined to build his home region into something great.

In 1924, he took up philanthropy directly by starting the Duke Endowment. He tightly focused his foundation on specific areas. First was Methodism, which he credited with building the character and work ethic that made him successful. Duke stipulated that 12 percent of his endowment’s expenditures would go to support the denomination’s rural churches and their clergy. (Methodism flourished in the Carolinas thereafter—see 1924 entry on our list of achievements in Religious philanthropy.)

As someone who had lost his mother at an early age, Duke sympathized with the ill and the orphaned. Ten percent of his money would go to children who lost their parents, and 32 percent to hospitals. (North Carolina’s growth in hospital beds per capita was almost twice that of comparable states after the endowment went into action.)

The remaining 46 percent of spending from his endowment, Duke spelled out, would go to four Carolina universities. Among other effects, this support transformed Durham’s small Trinity College into today’s
high-ranked Duke University.

His strong localist bent, and precise expression of his philanthropic desires, separated Duke from many of the other major philanthropists of his time. He was keen not to have his life’s creation spent on projects unpalatable to him. And he believed that by focusing his giving on the Carolinas he could do more good than would be accomplished by spreading his dollars thinly. It is hard to argue with his logic given how much success his universities, his Methodist church, and his social projects have had in his designated region in the decades since he
adopted them.