James B. Duke portrait
Centennial Spotlights

James B. Duke

In 1924, James B. Duke made a decision that still resonates today.

He created the Duke Endowment, a $40 million gift with specific beneficiaries in mind – chief among them the then-Trinity College in Durham. (Trinity would be re-named Duke University, recognizing family patriarch Washington Duke.)

A wealthy businessman by dint of the ascent of his family’s American Tobacco Company – the nation’s dominant cigarette manufacturer in the early 20th century – James B. Duke valued philanthropy.

The Duke Endowment provides funds – forever – for Duke, Davidson College, Furman University and Johnson C. Smith University as well as for non-profit hospitals, rural Methodist churches and retired Methodist preachers. He and his older brother, Benjamin Newton, were Methodists and practiced the kind of financial stewardship encouraged by their church.

For a century, the endowment has made good on those pledges; in 2022, it paid out more than $177 million in grants while making commitments worth $220 million more.

Known as “Buck,” James B. Duke was born near Durham in 1856 into a tobacco family. He grew the company through modernization of manufacturing processes. In 1885 the company became the first to use an automated cigarette-making machine, and by 1890 took control over his competition to form the American Tobacco Company, a monopoly that was eventually forced, due to antitrust violations, to break into four separate companies.

With his brother, James B. Duke broadened the family business to include first textiles and, soon after, hydroelectric power, forming a series of companies that would eventually become Duke Energy.  He did this by scouring western North Carolina for land near rivers, where he would build hydroelectric plants with the goal of bringing cheap electricity to the people of the rural South.

His efforts were acknowledged in small, lasting ways. Lake James, a power-generating reservoir in western North Carolina, is named for him. So is the Buck Steam Station in Salisbury.