A Brief History of Duke University

Duke Chapel | © Bjoertvedt / WikiCommons
Duke Chapel | © Bjoertvedt / WikiCommons
Photo of Shawndra Russell
7 February 2018

Duke University’s illustrious history began in 1838 when it opened as Brown’s Schoolhouse, a small wooden structure originally led by Methodists and Quakers. Fifteen years later, the school handed out its first Bachelor’s degrees. Perhaps the next major milestone was the school being renamed Trinity College in 1860 per its connection with the Methodist Church.

Duke University | © Ilyse Whitney/Flickr

In 1878, the school saw its first women graduates walk the stage to receive their diplomas. Then, in 1881 Duke’s inclusiveness was once again celebrated as it saw its first international graduate, and in 1896 when the first Native American to receive a degree from the school graduated. In 1928, Duke saw its very first class of doctorate students graduate.

The school’s identity has taken on several iterations, one of the most recognizable being its adaption of the color blue in 1889. That decision would lead to their athletic programs’ eventual nickname, the Blue Devils, which did not become popular until 1922.


It has been forced to close briefly twice in its long history, the first due to the civil war from 1865-1866, and the second from 1922-1924 due to low enrollment. In between, the school moved from Randolph County to the more populous Durham, North Carolina which has remained its home ever since. Durham was selected because it was thought to be progressive and representative of the values and direction of the New South.

When the school reopened in 1924, it was operated under the same bylaws that the original Trinity College was built upon, the only difference being the name and thus the reason why the schools share the same history. The new name honored James B. Duke, who gave the Duke Endowment, which first made the school considered a world-class university. He passed away in 1925.

Duke has been a college sports powerhouse for decades, especially in basketball, which started in 1906. This first team planted the seeds of the team’s consistent appearance in the sport’s championship games, although the team wouldn’t win their first national championship until 1991. Since then, they’ve won the NCAA Final Four four more times. Speaking of sports, the football drought at the school finally ended after 25 years on October 1, 1920. Duke football has won 17 conference titles since. In 1971, women’s sports were finally formalized.

Duke From Below | © Skot Lindstedt/Flickr

Duke’s most famous alumnus is President Richard Nixon, who graduated in 1937. A year later, the school was inducted into the Association of America Universities, signaling its prestige as one of the best research schools in the country. Other notable events include the school welcoming Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak on campus in 1964. Three years later, the school’s first African-American students earned their diplomas.

Today, Duke has an international presence on the higher education stage with a branch in China and is one of the hardest schools to be accepted at, with only 11% of applicants making the cut. This puts Duke at a world ranking of 17th in 2018, its highest position since 2011. About 15,000 students attend the university, some 22% being international, with tuition costing about $50,000 per year.

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