These Stories Were too Good to Be True. Then I Found Out They Were True.Historians/History
tags: Washington Duke
On a warm fall day in the 1850s, a young man named Washington Duke, after whom Duke University would later be named, visited the courthouse in Hillsboro, North Carolina, looking for a file. The court clerks were unable to locate the file so he left the courthouse empty handed. Upon leaving, Washington noticed a large number of slaves standing in two groups, males to the right and females to the left. As he walked between the two groups, he heard a woman call his name. He turned to see a beautiful female slave, close to his own age, whom he recognized as someone he had met briefly many years earlier.
The young woman explained that her owner had died and that she was going to be auctioned later that day. Noticing her sadness, Washington asked her to tell him her greatest desire. She replied that her greatest desire was to be free from slavery. Washington lowered his head then walked away. Later that day, during the bidding, Washington purchased her for $601 then immediately set her free. Having no place to live Caroline moved into the Duke home where she was provided room, board and a salary in exchange for housekeeping services.
The foregoing story was told to me, when I was a child, by my grandmother Sarah Taylor Duke. She had heard this, and other stories, from my fourth generation great grandfather, William P. Duke. William was a cousin and a contemporary of Washington Duke with whom he spent a great deal of time when they were boys. Many years later, when I was in college, I learned that the Orange County Estate Records in North Carolina, show that on October 15, 1855, Washington Duke purchased a slave named Caroline. Later Census records show that she lived in Washington’s home as a free woman. Thus, I found confirmation of the story I had been told as a child. The above account, is an abbreviated version of one of many stories that appear in my new book, The Duke Legacy. Though based on true events, drama and dialogue are added to create a more interesting presentation of history.
Historical fiction is nothing new. From Roots, by Alex Haley, to Lincoln, by Gore Vidal, writers have created entertainment while sharing a view of history. Historical fiction remains a popular writing style. But we are inclined to ask, what is the goal of the writer in utilizing this writing style? Why do writers novelize history? Quite simply, writers novelize history to create a more interesting text. Essentially, historical fiction creates a story line around a certain event, or series of events. Often, it is difficult to tell from the writing whether particular passages are based on fiction or whether they are based upon a factual event. Thus, books such as Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, sometimes leave us wondering how much of the story is true and how much is purely fiction.
In writing The Duke Legacy, my goal was twofold. First, and foremost, I wanted to bring attention to the lives of Washington Duke and his descendants whose philanthropic activities have resulted in many benefits to society, most notably Duke University. Washington Duke was a fascinating man. Born in Hillsboro, North Carolina, in 1820, he grew to become a man opposed to slavery and even participated, on at least one occasion, in helping a slave escape through the Underground Railroad. He also sought to eliminate gender bias in education at Trinity College, which later became known as Duke University. Washington Duke’s descendants continued his philanthropic activities as they developed new industries and found new philanthropic ventures.
The second objective in writing The Duke Legacy in a historical fiction genre, was to create a work people would enjoy while learning about the Duke family history. Thus, in deciding to write the book, reader enjoyment was an important consideration and hence, the book was written in the form of a novel based on historical facts.
The Duke Legacy is based in part upon stories I had heard from my grandmother, Sarah Taylor Duke, as a child. For the most part, these were simply great stories that had been passed down from my grandmother. As I grew older, I moved away to go to college and on to law school. I would occasionally think about these stories. In the early 1990s I began extensively researching the genealogy and history of the Duke Family. As I began to research, I often found verification of events my grandmother had described to me while I was younger.
Other portions of The Duke Legacy are based upon research and interviews of various persons in the Duke family or people in prominent relationships with members of the Duke family. In many respects, this portion of the text was easier to address because it was much more current and more easily accessed. A significant portion of the book, pertaining to the estate of Doris Duke, is based upon actual deposition and court transcripts. In some instances, where helpful for clarification and accuracy, actual excerpts are included in the text or in the appendix. Thus, although the book is a novel, it contains 246 footnotes identifying the source of every story and every pertinent fact contained in the book.
In writing The Duke Legacy as a historical novel, I tried to remain as true to the facts as I believe they occurred, thus maintaining the integrity of the text while creating an enjoyable work. Hopefully, this book will be of interest to many beyond the Duke family.
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