A Once-Promising Connection

The story of the new university and Kittrell, an all-black college in Vance County

The establishment of The Duke Endowment in December 1924 kickstarted massive construction plans at the newly renamed Duke University. Several existing buildings were to be removed: the library, Alspaugh Hall, Craven Memorial Hall, and Crowell Science Building. W.G. Pearson, treasurer of Kittrell College, wrote to Robert L. Flowers, secretary-treasurer of Duke University, in August 1925: “We are wondering what disposition you are going to make of the buildings that are to be taken down, and whether or not it is possible that these buildings, or part of them, will be available for Kittrell College. . . . If these buildings are available, we most respectfully ask that you take the matter up and inform us upon what conditions.” Thus began a most unusual connection between the then all-white Trinity College and the all-black Kittrell College.

Kittrell College had been established in 1886 in Vance County. Supported by the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it trained African-American men and women (and boys and girls, through its high school) for productive work in postwar society. The school often struggled financially, a condition not surprising for a Southern black school working during the nadir of Jim Crow segregation. Relying heavily upon donations from friends and supporters, the school floated and sank with the amount of income each year, making steady growth impossible.

One supporter of Kittrell College was Benjamin Duke, who had helped the college since at least 1902. By 1926, he had donated $300,000 to the institution, including a significant endowment made up of Duke Power stock. The Duke Memorial Hall on Kittrell’s campus was named in his family’s honor, as his late father, Washington, had also been a patron.

Several months of estimating costs and discussing details produced an agreement that Kittrell would take the buildings. To finance the cost of disassembling and reassembling the buildings, Benjamin Duke pledged $100,000. In appreciation, John R. Hawkins, Kittrell’s fiscal agent, wrote to Flowers, “We are to be congratulated on having fallen heirs to such splendid and valuable assets as are found in the material possessions already granted us, but more than this do we value the friendship and cooperation found in the very fine spirit which has prompted you in your unselfish and broadminded service.”

After an in-person meeting between Hawkins and Flowers, Flowers wrote to Alexander Sands, Benjamin Duke’s secretary: “I told them I did not think it wise to give any reports to the newspapers about the removal of the buildings because others were anxious to get them, and there might be some pressure brought to bear. I told Hawkins Mr. J.B. Duke had taught me the wisdom of keeping things quiet until they were done.”

Frank C. Brown, comptroller and professor at Duke University, also became involved in advising the administration at Kittrell on how to design their soon-to-expand campus. J.M. Avery, secretary of Kittrell, wrote to Brown in June 1926, full of anticipation. “I believe our campus will be prettier than that of any Negro College in the South,” he wrote.

Despite the high hopes, the next several years did not go smoothly. The cost to remove the buildings exceeded the funding, and the school found itself using endowment funds to pay bills. The library was successfully moved, and Alspaugh Hall was moved and reconstructed in a different configuration. (Today’s Alspaugh Hall on East Campus is a different building.) Craven Memorial Hall was eventually removed and reconstructed as an auditorium. There was not enough funding to move the Crowell building. Besides the construction woes, the school also suffered a severe lack of water and desperately needed a new well. The school repeatedly scrambled to keep its doors open; it was always on the verge of shutting down permanently.

On October 8, 1929, the B.N. Duke Library was dedicated—looking exactly as it had on the Trinity campus. As one university planned on a grand opening, however, the other continued to struggle to stay afloat. Kittrell managed to continue educating students until 1975, when it was finally shuttered. All three Trinity College buildings were destroyed by fire in 1972. The story of the oncepromising connection between Trinity and Kittrell has been all but forgotten.

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