The mysterious exhumation of Durham’s founding father

The mysterious exhumation of Durham’s founding father

By Ryan Pitkin

February 23, 2024

Most North Carolinians know the story of Sir Walter Raleigh — or if they don’t, they can most likely identify the namesake of the state capital. As for Dr. Bartlett Durham, the man for whom they named Raleigh’s younger sibling city, that story isn’t quite as familiar. 

So who was this Dr. Durham and how did he inspire the creation of what would become the state’s fourth-largest city? And why was he exhumed many years after his death? We dig into that and more of Durham’s lesser-known history below.

Durham’s beginnings

The mysterious exhumation of Durham’s founding father
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

For those outside of North Carolina, Durham may be best known as one-half of the destination on a plane ticket: Raleigh-Durham International Airport. That said, let’s get one thing clear off the bat — Raleigh-Durham is not a city.

As pointed out in this exasperated blog post by Discover Durham, the two cities — located 25 miles apart — have their own downtown, their own city government, their own mayor, their own laws, and their own vibes.

Durham is part of the Research Triangle, which also comprises, yes, Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Located within close proximity to one another, these three cities are home to three of North Carolina’s largest research universities: Duke University (Durham), NC State University (Raleigh), and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Originally home to the Eno and the Occaneechi Indigenous tribes, European settlers arrived in what is now Durham sometime in the 17th century. In the mid-1840s, Dr. Bartlett Leonidas Durham bought 100 acres near the Hillsborough-Raleigh road, between the tavern communities of Pinhook (near present-day Ninth Street) and Prattsburg (in what is now Edgemont), according to the Museum of Durham History.

In 1849, he donated land to create a railway depot that would come to be known as Durham Station. The community surrounding the depot began to expand rapidly following the Civil War, and the North Carolina General Assembly incorporated it as Durham in 1859.

Much of the economy for Durham was a product of the tobacco industry — both pre- and post-slavery. Following the war, former soldiers wrote inquiries in search of the tobacco they had sampled while passing through the area. W.T. Blackwell partnered with local tobacco cultivator John Ruffin Green, founder of Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco, and the two founded what would become the Bull Durham Tobacco Factory, named for the logo on Green’s product.

Progress continues

The mysterious exhumation of Durham’s founding father
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1892, Duke University moved from its original home in Randolph County to Durham, helped along by successful Durham businessmen Julian S. Carr, who donated the land, and Washington Duke, who funded the endowment and construction.

At the turn of the century, Durham became home to what is now known as Black Wall Street, a four-block district on Parrish Street that served as a hub for Black-owned businesses and financial services.

The community was pioneered by Black businessmen John Merrick, Dr. Aaron M. Moore, and Charles Spaulding—known by neighbors as “The Triumvirate.” Together, the trio made North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance, founded by Merrick and Moore in 1900, “the world’s largest Negro business,” as told in Walter B. Weare’s book, Black Business in the New South.

In 1909, James E. Shepard chartered the National Religious Training School and Chautauqua for the Colored Race, which would become the National Training School in 1915, the Durham State Normal School for Negroes in 1923, the North Carolina College at Durham in 1947, and finally, North Carolina Central University in 1969. Still part of the UNC System, NC Central remains one of the country’s most prestigious Historically Black Colleges and Universities today.

Digging up the past 

One of the more odd stories in Durham’s history involves Dr. Durham himself. The man for whom the city was named never did see the honor bestowed, as he passed away in 1859 of pneumonia at just 35 years old.

Originally buried in the graveyard of his mother’s family, the Snipes, on the Orange-Chatham county line, it was decided nearly 75 years later that his body should be brought home to his namesake city.

A short article in the July 18, 1933, issue of the Statesville Record and Landmark described the ghastly process, stating that “a number of graves were opened before the one containing the body of Dr. Durham was located.”

The paper tells of an 87-year-old formerly enslaved man named “Uncle” Mebane Edwards who spoke at a church service held before the disinterment, stating that he remembered attending Durham’s funeral despite having only been 10 years old at the time (he would have been 13).

The most morbid aspect of the article came in the complete normalcy with which they explained how hundreds of people at the service were able to view Durham’s body through a pane of glass in the casket. The paper reported that, due to the tightly sealed nature of the steel casket, Durham was “found to be in a state of perfect preservation.”

“The features of the face were easily distinguishable and Dr. Durham’s famous gold-rimmed spectacles — worn during his life — rested on the bridge of his nose,” the article read. “The bow tie, high collar, pleated shirt and coat also were well preserved.”

Durham was reburied in Maplewood Cemetery, though those in charge of the tombstone made a few mistakes. According to the Museum of Durham History, his Maplewood headstone wrongly gives his middle name as Snipes while the engraved years of his birth and death are also incorrect.

To see where Durham and other key historical figures were laid to rest, take a stroll through the 120-acre cemetery, which visitors claim is an underappreciated city gem.

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.The mysterious exhumation of Durham’s founding fatherThe mysterious exhumation of Durham’s founding father


  • Ryan Pitkin

    Ryan Pitkin is a writer and editor based in Charlotte, where he runs an alternative weekly newspaper called Queen City Nerve. He is also editor of NoDa News, a community newsletter in the neighborhood where he has lived for 15 years.

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