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Durham, NC, the center of the tobacco industry

Updated on January 4, 2011

The Origin of Durham

Durham is a city with a long history.

Originally, this area housed two Indian Sioux tribes, the Eno and the Occaneechi. The town of Adsusheer was right on the major Indian trade route. In 1701 the explorer John Lawson called this area "the flower of the Carolina's", and hordes of Scots, Irish and English settled in the territory of John Carteret, that was given to him by the English King Charles I, hence the name of Carolina.

Immense plantations were established to grow vegetables, grain and tobacco. The Bennehan and Cameron families owned some 30,000 acres or 12,000 hectares of plantations, and employed 900 slaves. In the center of this region lay in 1860 the Stag Ville Plantation, with its nearly 4,000 acres the largest plantation in the south.

The name Durham comes from Dr. Bartlett Durham, who in 1849 gave land to the railroad to a build a station.

The Tobacco Industry

in 1865, General Johnston signed the largest surrender of the civil war to the northern General Sherman in southern Durham, which meant the end of the civil war.

Legend has it that soldiers of both armies celebrated the cease-fire by smoking the local Bright Leaf tobacco. This tobacco pleased them so well that the local farmer Washington Duke resolutely switched his farm to tobacco, and subsequently focused on the sale of tobacco across the whole of America.

He built a factory to manufacture tobacco products by hand, and gave them the name "Pro Bono Publico" (for the public's welfare...). Sales increased so enormously, since many soldiers took his products back to the industrial north, that nine years later they built their third factory. In 1884, they built the first factory that produced machine-made cigarettes, and the money just streamed in !

This decision made North Carolina the center of the tobacco industry, and it would result in one of the largest companies in the USA (American Tobacco, Liggett & Myers, P. Lorillard and RJ Reynolds). It also became the basis of the Duke's family fortune.

Washington Duke's children soon diversified alongside tobacco to textile and electricity, and they became benefactors of schools, universities and museums. Tobacco is still the main export product of North Carolina.

I refrained from adding any illustrations to this article as, in my opinion, the subject does not lend itself to publicity.

African American Development

In 1898, the African-American John Merrick founded the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, which to date is the largest and oldest African-American life insurance company.

In 1907, the African-American M & F Bank (Mechanics and Farmers) was founded, which became one of the largest "black" banks.

In the Durham Parrish Street so many other African-American companies were set up, that this street soon became known as Black Wall Street...


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    • william landis profile image

      William L 2 years ago

      Tobacco built Durham and had almost as big an effect on Winston-Salem. It is probably one of the most important crops in our states history. It is the basis of much of the wealth in this state. My grandparents started as sharecroppers purchased their on land and were successfully farmers.

    • slusterbubble profile image

      slusterbubble 4 years ago from Florida

      Tobacco was cultivated intensively in many plantations, because it was so lucrative.After many years, and since there was no crop rotation, the land simply became exhausted, which in turn was the major incentive to obtaining more land - and expelling everyone that stood in their way !

    • profile image

      johnathan simmons 4 years ago

      where does it grow