Durham County

About

Unlike any county we’ve profiled so far, Durham County was founded after and named for the city of Durham. Though not incorporated until 1869, 1853 is considered to be the origin of the city of Durham as that is when the post office was established. Durham began as a railroad station named after Dr. Bartlett Durham who donated part of his land to the railroad. The county of Durham was formed in 1881 out of Orange and Wake counties and is unique for containing only one municipality. The county jostles with Cumberland for the 5th or 6th most populated county in the state and the city of Durham is the 4th largest city in North Carolina containing more than 86% of the county’s residents.

In 1865 the largest surrender of the Civil War took place at a farm known as Bennett’s Place in Durham. Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston met there with Union General William T. Sherman and surrendered nearly 90,000 soldiers in the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. Today, the farm has been reconstructed and restored to its 1865 appearance and is open to visitors.

The surrender at Bennett Place would also become an important catalyst in Durham’s ascendance as a major tobacco hub. The first tobacco production plant was established in Durham in 1858 by Robert Morris, who convinced Wesley Wright to partner with him and create the RF Morris Tobacco Co. JR Green bought the company in 1864 and laid the foundation for the success tobacco would achieve in Durham for more than 125 years. While stationed in Durham, both Confederate and Union armies liberally smoked Green’s tobacco without payment. As a result, Green worried about the depletion of his crop and the sustainability of his business. After the Civil War ended, Green began receiving letter upon letter from around the country from soldiers who had been stationed there requesting his tobacco, thus catapulting his business.

Green’s popularity became so widespread that he needed a differentiator from his competitors who were trying to imitate his branding. While having lunch with a friend, he saw the bull logo on the Colman’s mustard jar and remarked that it wasn’t just any bull but a bull known as a Durham shorthorn. Green quickly decided on the bull for a mascot and had it painted on the front of his factory and printed on the labels of his tobacco. Shortly thereafter, his brand became known as Bull Durham. The legacy of Green’s bull is still imprinted upon Durham through its nickname the “Bull City” and the continued use of the bull as the city’s mascot.

Green passed away in 1869, however, his business continued to thrive. In 1874, W. T. Blackwell and Co., producer of Bull Durham, met what would become its greatest competitor. While W. T. Blackwell and Co. were opening the city’s first brick tobacco factory, Washington Duke was purchasing two acres in close proximity to the railroad for a new factory, W. Duke, Sons and Company. After a few years in steep competition with Bull Durham, the Duke Co. decided it needed its own differentiator: cigarettes, a new trend, and technology inherited from Europe. By 1890, the company has cornered more than 40% of the cigarette market. Washington Duke’s son, J. B. Duke, convinced competitors to consolidate companies under one company banner known as the American Tobacco Company where they controlled 90% of the market. The monopoly that occurred as a result of this merger came to an end in 1907 when the American Tobacco Company was indicted in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The company was forced to break up assets across the American Tobacco Company, R.J. Reynolds, Liggett & Myers, and Lorrilard. The American Tobacco Company remained a behemoth of the tobacco industry up until its sale to Brown & Williamson in the mid-1990s.

While the bull symbolizes the city’s deep tobacco tradition, it has also come to refer to the booming financial industry known as Black Wall Street that emerged in the late 1800s through the early 1900s. In 1898, NC Mutual Life Insurance Company was founded by Black social leaders John Merrick, Dr. Aaron Moore, and C.C. Spaulding and was the oldest and largest Black financial institution in the United States (the company was liquidated recently in 2022). In 1907, seven Black businessmen in Durham worked together to raise capital to start a bank. Mechanics and Farmers Bank opened in 1908 and is the second-oldest Black bank in America. Many Black-owned businesses set up shop in Durham, primarily along Parrish Street. Black Wall Street attracted nationwide attention and drew visits from Booker T. Washington and W. E. Du Bois who saw what was happening in Durham as a model for the Black middle class. The urban renewal of the 1940s ultimately led to the demise of its success, causing many in the area to become displaced.

Politically, Durham County elects Democrats by the largest margin of any county in the state, but it wasn’t always a complete shut-out for GOP candidates. The county supported Richard Nixon in 1972, Jesse Helms for US Senate in 1978 and as recently as 1997, Durham elected a Republican mayor in Nick Tennyson. Today, all of Durham is encompassed in CD-4, a safe Democratic seat. However, within the last 10-15 years, parts of Durham have been represented by former GOP congressmen Howard Coble and George Holding.

Despite some outliers, Democratic support has largely prevailed throughout the county’s history and only seems to be strengthening. In 2020, Joe Biden performed nearly 10 points better than Barack Obama did in Durham in 2012, receiving 63% of the vote to Obama’s 53%. In 2022, Cheri Beasley won the county by a 65% margin in the race for US Senate

Geography

Elected Officials

County Data