Robert F. Durden

Presented at the April 2016 Meeting of the Historical Society of North Carolina

Robert Franklin Durden, Professor Emeritus of American History at Duke University and past president of the Southern Historical Association (1983-1984), died in Durham, North Carolina, on March 4, 2016.  Born in Graymont, Georgia, on May 10, 1925, he attended Emmanuel County Institute. He served as an ensign in the U.S. Navy during World War II (1943-1946), attended the oriental languages school at the University of Colorado, and worked as a Japanese translator and interpreter in the South Pacific and Japan. Upon his return from the war, he earned A.B. (1947) and M. A.  (1948) degrees from Emory University and M.A. (1950) and Ph.D. (1952) degrees from Princeton University.  In 1952 he joined the faculty at Duke University, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Durden’s scholarship initially concentrated on the period between the Civil War and the First World War.  Later his research and books on the Duke family, Duke University, the Duke Endowment, and the Duke Power Company extended through the twentieth century. His first book James Shepherd Pike: Republicanism and the American Negro, 1850-1881 (Durham, 1957), revised myths about the antislavery North. Likewise, his work on Populism, especially the coalition of Populists and Republicans in North Carolina during the 1890s, resulted in several books that cast new light on a political revolt crushed by white supremacy campaigns. Reconstruction Bonds and Twentieth Century Politics: South Dakota v. North Carolina (Durham, 1962), The Climax of Populism: The Election of 1896 (Lexington, 1965), and Maverick Republican in the Old North State: A Political Biography of Daniel L. Russell (Baton Rouge, 1977), coauthored with Jeffrey J. Crow, reminded scholars that the Democratic hegemony of the New South faced significant challenges from poor white farmers and African Americans. One of Durden’s most influential books, The Gray and the Black: The Confederate Debate on Emancipation (Baton Rouge, 1972), won the Jules F. Landry Award.

In the 1970s Durden began researching the Duke family, the rise of the American Tobacco Company, and the establishment of Duke University around Trinity College in 1924. That research resulted in perhaps his best-known book, The Dukes of Durham, 1865-1929 (Durham, 1975).  In addition to a quintet of books that he exhaustively researched on the growing influence of the Duke family and its institutions, he also published The Self-Inflicted Wound: Southern Politics in the Nineteenth Century (Lexington, 1985).

Durden published many articles and received many honors over the course of his career. He served two times as a Fulbright Professor, first at the Johns Hopkins University School for Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy (1965-1966), and later at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia (1980). In 1970-1971 he was appointed the James Pinckney Harrison Professor of History at the College of William and Mary. Emory University honored Durden with a D.Litt. in 1981. From 1974 to 1980 he chaired Duke’s history department. At the 1989 meeting of the Southern Historical Association in Lexington, Kentucky, former students and colleagues presented him with a festschrift: Race, Class, and Politics in Southern History: Essays in Honor of Robert F. Durden (Baton Rouge, 1989), edited by Jeffrey J.  Crow, Paul D. Escott, and Charles L. Flynn Jr.

Durden was not doctrinaire in his approach to history. He liked to raise questions and let his students discover the evidence to support their interpretations. His courtly manners, ready smile, and gentle spirit always placed students and strangers at ease.  When Durden was researching and writing The Dukes of Durham, he kept a carrel in the Perkins Library at Duke. At the same time we were finishing our dissertations. Once a week we would meet with him in a lounge for a brown-bag lunch to discuss our respective projects and many other subjects.  Durden’s sartorial trademark was a bowtie, which his wife Anne Oller Durden made. One day Durden showed up with bowties for each of us. He then proceeded to try to teach us how to tie one. Fortunately, we had greater aptitude for the classroom than the haberdashery.

In 1996 Durden became an emeritus professor, but he continued to teach a freshman seminar in the spring for many years. Besides history, Durden’s other passion was gardening. He kept an extensive garden in his backyard, where liked to entertain. The family placed his ashes next to Anne’s in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens on April 24, 2016. He is survived by two daughters, two granddaughters, three great grandsons, and the thousands of students who experienced the Durden magic in the classroom.

Jeffrey J. Crow and Paul D. Escott