Durham & Durham County, North Carolina
If you’re looking for places to visit in North Carolina and want a mix of history and where the state’s future lies, then Durham NC is the right city for you. If you know anything about us, you’ll at least recognize that Bull City is one of our favorites.
Durham NC Background
Durham rose through the years thanks to tobacco (hence the name “Bull Durham”), later for African-American enterprise, health, education, and technology. Oh, and there was that awesome baseball movie with Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins.
Of course, there’s much more to the city. Here’s some background info that covers the history of Durham from its pre-Bull City days through today.
Compared to other cities in North Carolina, Durham is fairly new, incorporated in 1869. But even though it hasn’t been around as long, there’s quite a lot of history in Durham to consider.
For more Durham background and history, check out Durham Tales by Jim Wise.
Pre-Durham (Eno, Occoneechee, and Stagville)
Before it became Bull City, Durham County (along with the neighboring Orange County) was predominantly occupied by the Eno and Occoneechi people. Remnants of their Great Trading Path are recognized at least in part along the Riverwalk in Hillsborough today.
The first mention of Durham by settlers came around 1700 and farmed the land throughout Durham and Orange counties. Plantations rose, with Stagville one of the largest in the area.
Antebellum Development and Bennett Place
Like many spots in Central North Carolina, Durham’s modern development kicked off thanks to the railroad. A depot (Durham Station) was built here so locomotives had a place to stop between Raleigh and Hillsborough.
A few years before its incorporation, an important event happened in what we now know as Durham. On the outskirts near Hillsborough, at a farm referred to as Bennett Place, the largest troop surrender of the Civil War was agreed upon between Confederate General Joseph E Johnston and Union General William T Sherman.
Bull Durham Tobacco and Duke University
Durham’s incorporation in 1869 coincided with its rise as a tobacco town. The American Tobacco Company was founded by the Duke family and remained in Durham for over a century.
Of course, the Duke name is better known today for academia and basketball played at Duke University. It was originally founded in Randolph County as Trinity College in 1838. Washington Duke and Julian Carr played a major part in bringing the school to Durham in 1892.
In 1924, it was renamed Duke University as a memorial to Washington, who passed away in 1905.
Black Wall Street and North Carolina Central University
After the war, Durham also served as an important center for African American businesses. Parish St and the city’s Hayti community formed the backbone what became known as Durham’s Black Wall Street.
North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance and Mechanics and Farms Bank were two major backers of Black Wall Street, which thrived until urban renewal efforts divided much of it in the 1960s.
North Carolina Central University remains as one example of the city’s historically strong African American community. It was founded in 1909 as a private college and eventually became North Carolina’s first state-supported liberal arts school for African-Americans in 1923.
Civil Rights Era
Many folks associate the Civil Rights era with the 1960s, but Durham’s Royal Ice Cream Sit-In in 1957 inspired future protestors. The demonstration led to a court case and though they lost, eventual activists in Greensboro and beyond were paying attention.
Of course, that wasn’t the end of Bull City’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr visited and is believed to have coined his famous “Fill up the jails” in Durham.
And while she spent much of her life advocating civil and gender rights throughout the world, Pauli Murray spent much of her childhood in Durham. You can find murals dedicated to her throughout the city today.
Research Triangle Park
Tobacco, textiles, and furniture were North Carolina’s major industries before and through World War II. However, many leaders in North Carolina were eyeing a future beyond those three mainstays.
The cooperation of local governments and businesses, UNC Chapel Hill, Duke University, and NC State University led to the creation of Research Triangle Park in 1959. More than three-quarters of the land is in Durham County and it’s the nation’s largest research park.
RTP hosts 300 companies with many from the health and technology sectors. It’s a massive influence on the local economy and a big part of why Durham and its surroundings continue to grow in population.
Recent Revitalization and Today’s Durham
As many leaders foresaw after World War II, many industries began to move away from Durham and led to a period of decline in the city. City leaders worked hard to combat rising crime and poverty through further urban renewal.
The American Tobacco Historic District is one example of revitalization, with businesses and startups occupying former warehouses. Durham’s population has more than doubled since 1980 to about 260,000, with more people coming to live here each year.
Many people drive to Durham via I-40 or I-85, or US Highway 70 or US Highways 15 and 501.
When driving around Durham, keep in mind that many street names change when crossing major ones and sometimes without much warning. If you’re not using a GPS, don’t worry if you get lost at least once.
You can also fly into nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport, which seems to be adding flights almost every day. I follow its map of non-stop destinations and am always excited to see the new additions popping up.
When you visit Durham, remember that the airport is the only thing in the area known as “Raleigh-Durham.” You can thank us later.
Things to Do in Durham
Earlier, we mentioned a few things to do in Durham, but wanted to share a few more before introducing our collection of travel guides dedicated to the city.
With tons of green spaces and historic places, it’s no surprise that there are many free things to do in Durham. And when you visit and eventually decide to move here, the city’s food scene will quickly unveil itself in the form of diverse international restaurants or places to grab some food a la casual.
We’ve covered quite a bit that Durham has to offer. This collection of guides are dedicated to this awesome city. We hope you’ll find them helpful in your quest to enjoy and better understand Durham. Grab a coffee or a beer and enjoy learning about all there is to do here!
Durham County Surrounding Towns and Cities Near Durham NC
As we mentioned, much of Durham County sits within Durham’s city limits. But multiple communities, towns, and even cities also lie inside the county lines:
Bahama: Bahama is the most prominent community not named Durham that solely resides the county. Prounced “Bah-Hey-Mah,” this unincorporated community is home to the historic Mount Bethel Church. Lake Michie, a primary reservoir of Durham, is also located near Bahama.
Chapel Hill: Orange County mostly claims Chapel Hill but parts of it are accessible before crossing the county line. Its proximity to Durham is a big part of why we’ve spent many weekends exploring this fun more-than-a-college town.
Morrisville: This predominantly Wake County town’s first tidbit is that part of it sits in Durham County, too. It’s also home to Raleigh-Durham International Airport, the only place named Raleigh-Durham. And finally, we love coming here to explore Lake Crabtree’s trails, some of our favorite hikes in the Triangle.
Raleigh: Believe it or not, but some of Raleigh is also found within Durham County’s lines. It’s only a small portion, though, as the rest of our capital city belongs to Wake County. And like Chapel Hill, we love hopping over there and spending date nights and weekends in Raleigh.
Rougemont: This community might be better-known than Bahama but parts of it extend into Person County to the north. It’s known for a couple of interesting places, including the Orange County Speedway. Another cool spot in Rougemont is Castle Mont Rouge, a difficult-to-reach castle built as a private residence and studio.
Searching for Something Specific?
We look forward to sharing more fun things to do in Durham, its awesome people, and more as we continue exploring the city. If you’re seeking something specific, check the search box above.