James Buchanan (“J.B.” or “Buck”) Duke was born on December 23, 1856, on a farm in Durham County, North Carolina. The son of Washington and Artelia Roney Duke, he was only two years old when his mother died, and only seven years old when his father was drafted into military service by the Confederate States of America.
Washington Duke returned to the Duke homestead in 1865 after the Civil War ended. It is reported that following the war's devastation, Washington Duke's only material assets were two blind mules, 50 cents, and some tobacco that had been stored in a shed for several years. In fact, his primary assets were his sons -- Buck and his older brother, Benjamin Newton Duke.
Together, the father and sons built a family tobacco business -- slowly at first, with the Duke family taking to the road to sell small pouches of tobacco from the back of a wagon. The Duke family business grew slowly but steadily until 1884, when the Dukes decided to gamble on a new venture: the mechanized production of cigarettes.
The gamble was so successful that the small business grew rapidly, acquiring other companies and eventually evolving into the mammoth American Tobacco Company -- a firm so large, so complex, and so profitable, that it was dissolved in a 1911 anti-trust decision.
However, the family’s wealth was not solely dependent on tobacco. Long before the 1911 action, the Dukes had invested in the textile industry and also directed their attention to another new development, hydroelectric power -- a move that led to the founding of the Duke Power Company in 1905.
Throughout the years of growth and prosperity, the two brothers, Ben and J.B., worked together in business and in philanthropy. Their sister, Mary Duke Lyon, was an early partner in the family endeavors, and also encouraged the family's support of Trinity College, a regional institution in North Carolina affiliated with the Methodist Church. Washington Duke had helped Trinity College relocate to Durham, and Ben had been a member of the school's Board of Trustees. For many years the family contributed privately to Trinity; at the insistence of Trinity President William Preston Few, the college was re-chartered as Duke University in honor of Washington Duke and his family. The family also contributed to hospitals, orphanages and the Methodist Church.
After their father's retirement and their sister's untimely death, Buck took the lead in most of the Duke family's business affairs, while Ben guided most of the Duke family philanthropy. This division of labors proved highly successful: Buck was a visionary and energetic business leader, while Ben organized and directed the Duke family's steadily increasing philanthropic efforts, building on the patterns established by their father.
Quietly drawing on the counsel of trusted business associates and particularly on the wisdom of Trinity College President William Preston Few, the Dukes began to plan a more systematic method of giving – one that would continue to benefit residents of the Carolinas into the future – by establishing the Duke Endowment in December 1924, just 10 months before Buck died.