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Duke University: Humble beginnings in a one-room schoolhouse in Trinity

Highway 62 and the town of Trinity might look very different today if the school hadn't moved.

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The history of Duke University starts with a one-room schoolhouse, but that schoolhouse wasn't in Durham. In fact, you'll have to travel an hour west to the small town of Trinity in Randolph County.

Drive down Highway 62 towards Trinity and you'll pass by a highway marker. It says: Trinity College stood here. There's a slew of names and dates, but the one at the bottom should make you hit the brakes. It’s Duke University.

“Four families settled in the area in the last half of the 18th century, the Browns, Johnsons, Leaches, and the Mendenhall's. One of the mothers, a relative of mine, was a teacher and she taught the kids of all the families. Eventually, they built a one-room school and it was called Brown schoolhouse,” said Dan Warren, Trinity and Randolph County historian.

By 1839 the schoolhouse is known as the Union Institute, a subscription school. In 1851 it became Normal College.

“It was the first state-accredited teacher's college in NC,” said Warren. He even has one of the original certificates from that year.

By 1859 Normal College became Trinity College. Trinity students cheered their team on, calling their football team “The deep dark blue”.

“So much of the social, religious, and money traffic was concentrated with the school, professors lived there, students, it was a hub and it was devastating when the school moved,” said Warren.

By 1891, the last class graduated from Trinity College in Randolph County. The school's president wanted to move.

“His thought was they could only prosper if the school moved to an urban setting and the Duke family provided the money, so the college was moved in 1892 to Durham. In 1924 it was reorganized and Trinity College became the nucleus for what is now Duke University,” said Warren.

Just think what could have been. So, the next time you're speeding through the small towns of NC, think of this.

“Highway 62, instead of modest homes and stores, could have been a college campus and the center of worldwide fame,” said Warren.  


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