Duke University was named after James Buchanan Duke, a tobacco and electric power industrialist who provided the initial endowment to the university. In 1838, his father, Washington Duke, established “W. Duke Sons & Co.” in Durham, North Carolina. The company began manufacturing hand-rolled tobacco and cigarette paper. His brother William joined the firm in 1854 after graduating from Trinity College in Durham. When Washington died in 1885, William became head of the company as well as president of Trinity College.
James Buchanan Duke was born in Durham and attended public schools there before enrolling at Trinity College (now Duke University) in 1888. He left college without graduating to work for his father’s tobacco business full-time, but he continued his studies at night and eventually earned both a bachelor’s degree (1893) and a law degree (1896). In 1899 he founded the Bonsack Machine Company which manufactured cigarette rolling machines; this company eventually evolved into Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company.
In 1905 James B. Duke established The Duke Endowment with
40 million worth of assets from his father’s estate; this money was intended to fund educational institutions that would help children of southern tobacco farmers improve their lives through education.
The school changed its name to Duke University in honor of its primary benefactor on March 6, 1924. The university’s seal, which features a shield with a Latin phrase translating to “Let God be your guide,” also honors James B. Duke.